Normandy ‘then’ often means D-Day and 1944 bravery. Or perhaps Vikings swooping in from the North bringing warrior ancestors to William, Duke of Normandy, Conqueror of England.
Their battles are muted by time. We know they were terrible, that people suffered, others crowed in victory, but we do not see the warm blood or hear the cries of dying soldiers. Normandy ‘then’ is a fascinating history, safely in the past. So what we found matching a postcard of a pretty Orne valley was a complete shock.
A pretty valley in the Orne
Flers is surrounded by rivers and has a long, busy history of mills and factories. Along the Vallée de la Vère, the pretty Vere river twists past steep hillsides covered in dense woodland and a few tiny fields. We laughed not knowing how on earth we would match our postcard, but walking along the Vallée de la Vère, we think we found the exact spot.
Barely a car drove by, perhaps two in all the time we were there? The river rushed over clean stones, vibrant green plants dipped into the water. Moss glistened. Reflections on that sunny day were beautiful.
La vallée de la mort
This tranquillity made our later discovery all the more shocking.
We had not researched the valley at all before our visit so looked around for clues to its past. We saw the quiet old factories hidden amongst the trees, but heard no machinery and the brick walls and locked gates looked old.
Though the locks looked quite new. Back home just a few minutes on the internet revealed a new and horrible name for the valley. La vallée de la mort. It wasn’t an accident that gave the valley its name. Nothing blew up, no fires or breaking machinery. What happened was decades of deceit.
An evil lived in this place that cared more for money than for human life. It looked the other way when hard working people become ill and it continued to look the other way for nearly 100 years. In 1904 cotton weaving leaves the valley unable to be compete with cheaper production in the east.
Cotton was replaced by the manufacture of braids and insulating fabrics from an incredibly strong, fire resistant fibre imported cheaply from Canada. Machines from the old textile industry are easily adapted to separate these natural fibres.
But processing l’amiante, asbestos, generates constant dust. As early as 1906 research suggested dust from asbestos, used to make fireproof fibre, could be harmful to health. The Vere factories are named in the report. Ineffectual ways to clean the factor air are suggested.
The natural killer, asbestos
In the 1920’s the dangers of asbestos are becoming known to a growing number of medics across the world as patients who work with the fibres suffer agonising deaths. In the UK lobbying begins, asking for heavy restrictions to manufacture with this natural fibre.
British manufacturer Ferodo moves its operations to the Orne in 1927. By the time legislation is passed in the UK in 1931 Ferodo is well established and has taken over a number of small businesses along the Vallée de la Vère. The company builds new factories and is soon the main employer in the region. Legislation giving any protection to asbestos workers in France will not be passed for 50 years.
By the 1950’s Ferodo employs over 3000 people in the Orne asbestos factories. Generations of families work in the Vallée de la Vère making fireproof board, brake pads, protective clothing, even heat resistant pads for toasters. Asbestos is cheap and incredibly flexible. But the manufacturing process is a mess.
Local people remember ‘snow all year’ as dust settles in the valley and fortunes are made. As the white and silver dust settled on villages and homes beyond the valley, even those who do not work for Ferodo are used to leaving their footprints in the sticky silver sand. A local recalls how cows in the surrounding fields would shake the dust from their hair. Farmers are given asbestos waste to bury. They still come across pockets of it today as they plough.
Deaths that cannot be ignored?
In the 1970’s over 2000 workers died from asbestos poisoning . Some families were told deaths had other causes, the exact numbers will never be known. In 1977 the first French regulations are bought in to protect against the deadly dust and masks distributed. Some jobs in the factory are impossible to do while wearing them, so they are abandoned as managers look the other way. The same year, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies asbestos as a carcinogenic. Cancer.
Valeo bought Ferodo in 1980. Salaries are good and employees well cared for with sports facilities, Christmas gifts, but no real effort is made with working conditions.
Maurice Renouf, former weaver at Ferodo brake band, recalls: “We were covered in asbestos dust… the whole room seemed to be embedded in a haze of asbestos… Some even carried away chunks of ore home to put on the mantelpiece or made dolls clothes from the cloth for for their children.” During the 1980’s many European countries banned manufacture using asbestos. It took France until 1997.
There are court cases and arguments to this day asking who conspired to delay laws that would protect the workers; some were concerned about protecting jobs, others claim ignorance of the medical problems. Some may have slowed legislation by insisting on extreme and slow committee reviews…
All arguments seem inadequate when faced with the continual loss of life, appalling illness and misery of the asbestos workers. The victims refuse to hide away and those that can are fighting back. As recently as 11 October 2014 people from across France marched in Paris calling for the victims of the terrible asbestos factories, not just in the Orne, to be properly compensated.
A lingering poison
But although the law changed in 1997, there is still poison hidden in the Vallée de la Vère. A 2013 news story talks about asbestos dust still leaking into the environment from the old closed factories. Local families know that as the buildings crumble the poison dust escapes into the valley and the river.
Because of the amount of time since the factories closed, on the surface the businesses who ruined the valley seem to have no legal responsibility for cleaning it up. There was a Memorandum of Understanding between Valeo and the Department of Ecology, signed in April 2009, to clear up a site in the Orne, but as yet nothing has happened.
The eternal sleep
Executives, councillors and politicians who made decisions to delay legislation, to look the other way, can live with their decisions, many in the Orne cannot. Ever year more than 50 people in the area still die from illness caused by asbestos.
Campaigning group Aldeva claim as many as 30 people die from it every month. No family in the area is untouched by loss and many cannot forget as they face a slow death from hardening lungs.
No happy ending, yet
While those who made fortunes in the Vallée de la Vère pretend they have no responsibility to care for the countryside and lives they have ruined, the silent factories continue to crumble. As the wind blows down the Vallée de la Vère it disturbs the poison dust and should disturb us all.
- Asbestos valley; moving set of current photos and stories from Transit
- Asbestos, it’s not over! Paris Match
- Asbestos, still in the valley of death, Ouest-France.fr
- The muffled future of Conde sur Moireau
- Asbestos in the heart of industry, history from Ouest-France
Vallée de la Vère reflections