Coal Tattoo

Remembering Buffalo Creek


(A dog sits in Buffalo Creek hollow in the aftermath of the 1972 coal-slurry dam disaster in this photo by longtime Gazette photographer Lawrence Pierce)

Thirty-seven years ago today, a coal-slurry dam on Buffalo Creek in Logan County, W.Va., broke. A wall of water and coal waste — 30 feet high and 550 feet across — burst from the impoundment, and rushed more than 15 miles down the hollow, toward the confluence of Buffalo Creek and the Guyandotte River at Man.

The disaster killed 125 people, injured 1,000 and left 4,000 homeless.

In 1997, the Gazette produced a special series, Voice of Buffalo Creek, to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster. The project included oral history-type interviews with survivors, a government inspector, a newspaper reporter, and others. We also published the full text of a citizens’ commission report on the disaster, and a Buffalo Creek chapter from my colleague Paul Nyden’s doctoral dissertation. And Gazette Editor James A. Haught wrote a story about his long investigation of Buffalo Creek including his quest to find out why then-Gov. Arch Moore accepted a $1 million settlement from Pittston Coal as complete payment for the state’s losses from the disaster.

Buffalo Creek wasn’t the world’s first coal-slurry dam disaster. Six years earlier, 144 people — including 116 children — were killed in a similar dam collapse in the village of Aberfan in South Wales. And nearly a decade after Buffalo Creek, on Dec. 18, 1981, an impoundment collapsed near Ages, Ky., and the resulting flood killed one resident, Nellie Ball Woolum.

In our 1997 series, I produced a story about the continuing dangers of slurry dams across the coalfields. And since then, we’ve seen the huge environmental mess made by the “breakthrough” at Massey Energy’s Martin County Coal operation in October 2000.

Coalfield residents in West Virginia still worry about the huge impoundment up the hollow from Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County, and the Brushy Fork impoundment not far from there. Even recently, federal officials expressed concern that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection does not do enough to police coal-slurry dams.

In a 2002 study, the National Academy of Sciences suggested various reforms for coal-slurry regulation, and outlined disposal alternatives that could avoid huge impoundments. But those recommendations have been mostly ignored.

Just before Christmas, the failure of a coal-ash impoundment in Tennessee reminded of the dangers posed across the coalfields by the industry’s waste disposal practices.

In its report, the Citizens’ Commission on Buffalo Creek had this to say:

For the Buffalo Creek disaster, like the recent coal mine fire tragedies at Farmington, West Virginia, and at Hyden, Kentucky, could have been prevented — it need not have happened. Clearly and simply, people living downstream from the Buffalo Mining Company’s coal refuse dam at Saunders were the victims of gross negligence.

In Appalachia — sometimes known as “the last white colony of western civilization” — absentee owners of the region’s vast energy resources and their subservient homebred and imported politicians time and again are to blame for mass death and destruction. Time and again, those most at fault throw up smokescreens to obscure their responsibility .

There is a basic question raised anew by Buffalo Creek, the latest assault by the coal operators in their long slaughterhouse in death, injury and disease: Whether the people of Appalachia and West Virginia can any longer afford this senseless destruction of their lives, their land, and their democratic institutions; or whether the ownership and operation of the coal mines should be brought under democratic control to benefit all the people. All too clearly the tragedy of Buffalo Creek has torn away the mask, revealing the ugly truth that powerful coal interests dominate the government, the environment, and the West Virginia way of life to the detriment of all its citizens. Discussion and action are needed now to transform King Coal, the tyrant, into Citizen Coal, the servant of all — before and not after another Buffalo Creek disaster.