Lessons Not Learned

Traumas and broken trust in the wake of industrial disaster
May 1, 2014


The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil, by Susan Dodd. Fernwood Publishers, Halifax and Winnipeg, 2012, trade paperback, 192 pages, $24.95.

On February 15, 1982 the world’s largest offshore oil rig, the Ocean Ranger, capsized and sank in a monster storm off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. All 84 men on board perished, including Jim Dodd, the brother of author Susan Dodd, whose 2012 account of the disaster is new again before it had a chance to get old.

The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil is an analysis of individual and collective trauma and the processes invoked to restore public confidence in the wake of terrible tragedy. It is a work of extraordinary scholarship, providing a template for understanding industrial disasters, especially those that result from regulatory failure. Dodd elucidates the collective traumas these events produce, and the ensuing social and political revisionism that obscures their root cause in a too-cozy relationship between governments and big oil companies. My own report for the CCPA—The Lac-Mégantic Disaster: Where Does the Buck Stop?— would not have been possible without the insights I gained from The Ocean Ranger.

Telling the wrong stories

The Ocean Ranger disaster produced a potential legitimation crisis — a breach of the public’s trust in the government’s ability to protect them that had to be managed. Dodd’s book demonstrates how this was done through multiple interrelated social and political revisionary processes.

Through her meticulous research, Dodd identifies and tracks seven processes of revision in the aftermath of the 1982 spill: quasi-judicial inquiries and reports, “bought” news coverage, electoral politics, lawsuits and settlements, parliamentary debate and legislation, commemorations, and art and literary works. Dodd describes these overlapping revisionary processes as a metaphorical rope, “erratically bound, frayed at points, tightly twisted at others, and always with loops where some strands come loose, but then are wound back in.”

She explains further: “The inquiry produces a report, people talk and tell stories, songwriters sing songs and the novelists and oral historians combine strands from the inquiry report, folklore and songs when they write their books. Each strand of remembering spins its own kind of revision of the event, producing an account that makes sense because we recognize it as a kind of storytelling.”

In the aftermath of an industrial disaster, these strands all contribute to changing the focus, or even replacing the central issue—the conflict between the interests of communities and those of distant shareholders—with a dominant version of the story and even a common style of telling. Versions of events that challenge the dominant style and content, as in Mike Heffernan’s oral history, Rig, and Lisa Moore’s novel, February, are obscured.

In the aftermath of the disaster, these interrelated sociopolitical processes can help us heal but they also encourage us to forget, especially when the root cause of the disaster is the failure of governments to protect the public from corporate predation.

Disaster as a “learning story”

The Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster authoritatively painted events so they depicted only one episode in the larger narrative of human progress of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. This was a “learning story” for all involved, with the province, Canada and the oil industry as agents poised for a promising future.

Public relations campaigns from the companies involved stressed the radically unlikely chain of events that caused the accident, muddied the “scientific” waters, scapegoated workers and emphasized the need to allow the oil sector to self-regulate. Family members were alienated first by the negligence of these companies and governments, then again by the failure of the system to name and punish the wrongdoers, and finally by the process of settling lawsuits — the so-called blood price.

Accepting settlement money helped to partially overcome this alienation. But families still had to live with the guilt of not being able to exact any punishment on the perpetrators, or even to force the responsible companies to admit their guilt. Moreover, the settlements diverted resources from the families’ advocacy efforts and reduced their credibility as public critics of government and corporations.

The Ocean Ranger story was revised again decades later by commemorations and literary works. Many of these described the event as emblematic of a bygone era, replaced by a new Newfoundland and Labrador that has triumphed over its colonial past by standing up to Ottawa and the oil companies, to seize control of its destiny and realize the promise of oil. Dodd persists in asking uncomfortable questions about the disaster that these processes of retelling have suppressed.

For example, Dodd asks how companies came to operate without any effective government regulation. Why was the only punishment companies faced through modest settlements to avoid lawsuits? How did the social and political processes in the aftermath secure public confidence in the promise of oil? What role, if any, did the oil workers’ sacrifice play in subsequent efforts to secure benefits from the oil companies? What is the relationship between this disaster and others, especially those caused by regulatory failure?

Dodd’s goal in all of this is “to challenge the forgetfulness offered by redemptive narratives where wrongs perpetrated by profit seekers are recast as noble sacrifices.” She aims to debunk the myth of corporate self-regulation—the notion that corporations are naturally “good citizens” who will act in the public interest if left alone— that is exposed by every disaster, and resurrected in the retelling of the story.

The socio-political processes that manage crises of corporate and government legitimacy, “work together to meet some demands of justice, to shed light on some truths, and also to impose a false closure that limits public reflection on gross regulatory failures,” she writes. But to truly heal “is to be able to distinguish legitimate demands for accountability from existential feelings of loss and alienation.” Dodd cautions that this true healing “is fragile, especially when our personal trauma originates in a betrayal of public trust that is repeated and exacerbated by a failure of justice to hold anyone accountable.”

History repeating on land and sea

Dodd sees the revisionary processes she tracked in the Ocean Ranger disaster playing out again in the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which happened four years ago this April.

“The oil companies took freedom from regulation as an opportunity to cut costs and corners,” she writes. “In both instances (Horizon and Ocean Ranger), the trauma struck individual people and families, but it also struck the heart of ‘a people,’ a culturally distinct community characterized by a tradition of life on the sea… In both cases, the story would be transformed, with a major, even hegemonic, strand of the story presenting the disaster as a learning opportunity for technological engineering.”

And although it is still early days, the same processes are at work in the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster. In this instance, however, the task of restoring public confidence is much more complex.

Compared to Newfoundland and Labrador’s “promise of oil,” remaking the Harper government’s “energy superpower” narrative after Lac- Mégantic, and in light of other oil transportation threats, will be a hard sell indeed. I suspect Dodd’s metaphorical rope of revisions and retellings will be rather more frayed and fraught in this case, with more loose ends that are difficult to wind back together.

The Ocean Ranger is a gift to all those who seek understanding and justice in the wake of industrial disasters—past, present and future—where corporate negligence and regulatory failure betray the public’s trust.

Bruce Campbell is Executive Director of the CCPA. His February 2014 report, The Lac-Mégantic Disaster: Where Does the Buck Stop?, is available for download here