Coal Tattoo

Remembering the Buffalo Creek Disaster

(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)

Earlier this week, I wrote a print story for the Gazette looking back briefly at the Buffalo Creek Disaster and at the continuing concerns of coalfield citizens about coal-slurry impoundments that loom over their communities. As I wrote in that story:

Forty years ago Sunday morning, a trio of coal-waste dams at a Pittston Coal operation on Buffalo Creek in Logan County collapsed. A wall of sludge, water, and debris stormed down the hollow from Saunders to Man.

By the time the Feb. 26, 1972, flood was over, 125 people had been killed. Another 1,100 were injured, and about 4,000 were left homeless.

A citizens’ commission report called Buffalo Creek “a man-made disaster.” A governor’s task force concluded, “It was, in the truest sense, the most destructive flood in West Virginia history.”

Today, hundreds of coal-waste dams still loom over Appalachian communities. Coalfield residents often worry it could all happen again.

Industry officials and most regulators say it won’t. They point to tougher laws, stronger engineering standards and better construction practices put in place after the Buffalo Creek Disaster.

Other experts acknowledge serious improvements over the last four decades. Buffalo Creek spurred Congress to pass the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Lawmakers also added new dam-safety duties to the work of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration when they rewrote coal-mine safety rules.

But coal-slurry impoundments remain a constant target for citizen concerns, and for the environmental community’s growing efforts to crack down on the coal industry generally and mountaintop removal specifically. And some experts say there are reasons to be worried.

“We’ve come a long way since Buffalo Creek,” said longtime mine inspector Jack Spadaro, who investigated the disaster for a special gubernatorial commission.

A few years back – at the 25th anniversary of that terrible flood — I did an oral-history interview with Jack Spadaro and he told me:

The thing that disgusted me was that people in the valley had been saying for years there was a problem there. They’d been evacuated many times before because of the fear of a dam failure.

A woman named Pearl Woodrum wrote a letter to the governor, I think it was dated February 1968, four years before the flood. Pearl Woodrum was saying to the governor that there was a dam at the head of Buffalo Creek that was unsafe and that if it failed, it would kill all the people in the valley. She said, ‘If you don’t do something, we’re all going to be washed away,’ and that’s what happened. It was a prophecy.

The head of the Public Service Commission had a copy of her letter and didn’t do anything. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Natural Resources had been repeatedly asked to look at it. There was this letter to the governor that was passed on down through the layers of government, and nowhere along the way did anyone take any kind of decisive action.

There were other people in the valley, I don’t remember their names, who complained regularly. They went to a Mr. Oval Damron, who was prosecutor in the county at the time, but he didn’t take any action. He knew about the problem, but he didn’t take any action.

During the four years between ’68 and ’72, there had been plenty of attention placed on the potential hazards of the dam collapsing and no one from the government took any decisive action, even though there was some law on the books that should have protected those people.

I remember Jack telling me that one of the lessons he learned was to “listen to the people,” and I’ve tried to remember that as I’ve continued my career as a reporter. Unfortunately, even in my lifetime, there have been multiple disasters where it was clear warnings were raised, but nobody in any position of power listened. That goes for the Sago Mine Disaster, where scientists pointed to the possibility of a lightning strike causing a coal-mine explosion, to Upper Big Branch, where workers tried to tell Massey mine managers that the operation was a disaster waiting to happen.

Our series, Voices of Buffalo Creek, is still the thing I’ve taken part in that I’m the most proud of in more than 20 years now at the Gazette.  One of the best interviews was the one Rick Steelhammer did with his now-deceased friend, Nelson Sorah. Nelson was a Gazette reporter at the time, and also served on National Guard duty in the Buffalo Creek response. Nelson was city editor here when I did a summer internship in 1989, and was crazy enough to let a college kid spend a few months driving around Southern West Virginia talking to coal miners who were on strike against Pittston Coal, the company responsible for Buffalo Creek. Nelson told Rick in that interview:

We were walking up there, about 8 o’clock in the morning and it wasn’t really cold. The people in the morgue told us we weren’t going to believe what we’d be seeing and they were right. How can you describe what’s indescribable? We looked over at this tree – a small tree, probably 4 inches in diameter – and a body was up in it with his arm across his face like he was trying to shield it. It was a man, a boy actually, 18 or 19. I saw a big gash on the side of his head, but other than that he looked OK, as far as dead people look OK. He was up in a limb, maybe 18, 20 feet off the ground.

We went probably another hundred yards and saw our second body – an older man lying in the creek, or where the creek had been, and there was a dog with him, lying beside the body. The dog was very much alive, and kept within 2 or 3 feet of him. I’m sure the dog was protecting the person. I assume it was the guy’s dog. Those were the only two bodies we saw that day ….

Of course, the Gazette’s longtime investigative reporter, Paul Nyden, wrote a chapter about Buffalo Creek in his doctoral dissertation (which is still the best thing ever written about the coal industry), and here’s a little of what Paul wrote:

While men like John Riley and Garland Clark were repairing their homes in the hollow, and while hundreds of families were still living in Man High School struggling to face the future without their homes and, in many cases, without members of their family, government bureaucrats and company officials were busy too.

They were busy devising theories explaining how the disaster occurred and who was responsible for it.

Francis J. Palamara, executive vice president of Pittston, came up with the most original one of all. He communicated his thought to the Charleston Gazette, which published them on the Tuesday morning after the flood:

“We’re investigating the damage which was caused by the flood which we believe, of course, was an act of God.” Palamara claimed there was nothing wrong with the dam at Three Forks, only that it was “incapable of holding the water God poured into it.”

Francis Palamara’s initial statement to the press had aroused such public outrage that ten days later, he was informing all callers:

“We are very much interested in trying to cooperate with people trying to put out publicity about this incident. But our legal counsel confines us to being extremely careful about what we say.”

He added that the “most plausible and meaningful way” to handle any questions would be to record them over the telephone and then supply written answers.

Many of Buffalo Hollow’s residents are deeply religious, and they felt that Palamara’s “act of God” statement was blasphemous.

At a protest meeting held in the Buffalo Grade School in Accoville a month after the flood, an older woman stood up and won applause from everyone when she shouted out: “I’ve lived up at the top of the hollow for a long time. And I ain’t never seen God up there driving no bulldozer dumping slate on that dam.”

But Palamara was soon overshadowed by Governor Arch Moore, who certainly won the first prize for insensitivity.

Not to be outdone by remarks his predecessor Hulett Smith made after Farmington nor by Elburt Osborn’s reaction to the Hyden explosion, Moore offered his analysis of the tragedy on Buffalo Creek. Quoted in the New York Times, Moore attacked the news media for their coverage of the flood:

“The only real sad part about it [the coverage] is that the state of West Virginia took a terrible beating which far overshadowed the beating which the individuals that lost their lives took, and I consider this an even greater tragedy than the accident itself.”

If you’re free on Saturday, take a drive down to Man, W.Va., and go to the high school at about noon. They’re having a memorial program there. Among the things they’ve been trying to do, in cooperation with the local library, is to collect photographs of all of the flood victims. It’s hard to do, given that the entire community was destroyed. Surviving photos would have to be gathered from relatives living far away — and this was all long before digital photographs were emailed around and posted on Facebook.

Folks at the library at Marshall University have put together an interesting website with lots of Buffalo Creek stuff, including a copy of the report from the governor’s committee that investigated the disaster. But if you have time to go back and read only one thing about Buffalo Creek this weekend, I’d recommend checking out “Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens’ Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community“. Here’s part of what it had to say:

Survivors’ accounts, journalists’ unanswered questions, and the disappearance of the mining company official most directly involved — together with the remembrance of past disasters — brought a stunned citizenry to its feet. The public was jolted from the depths of sorrow and anguish to a sense of outrage and anger that continues to burn.

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.

Following the fire and explosion at Consol #9 Mine in 1968 which killed 78 men, Governor Hulett Smith shrugged apologetically declaring, “This is one of the hazards of mining.” Smith did not add that the Consolidation Coal Company was guilty of numerous violations of the mine safety laws in this mine. Another governor, Cecil Underwood, performed so well for the Island Creek Coal Company following its Holden # 22 mine disaster 5 in 1960 that he was elevated to the position of executive vice president of the company immediately upon leaving the governorship.

Aside from the attempted whitewashing of the more spectacular mass murders, our governors never decry the terrible fact that more than 120,000 coal miners have been killed in the coal mining industry since its beginning, that one out of every ten coal miners is injured each year and that an estimated one-half of the coal mining work force becomes crippled or incapacitated by the insidious black lung disease.

In this deadly drama the coal operators’ script — placing profits before people — has been followed line-by-line by some of our political leaders. In the case at hand, the center stage characters are behaving true-to-form.

— Thus, officials of the company called the disaster an “act of God” because God put all that water behind a dam that wasn’t designed to hold it.

— Thus, Assistant Secretary Hollis Dole of the Interior Department, testifying before a sub-committee of Congress, doubted whether the refuse dam was “hazardous” and subject to regulation by the Bureau of Mines.

— Thus, Governor Arch Moore, taking charge of relief operations, said the lethal dam had a “logical and constructive” purpose. According to the image-conscious Governor, “The only real sad part is that the state of West Virginia has taken a terrible beating that is worse than the disaster.”

Given the enormity of the avoidable destruction of human lives and values wrought by the man-made Buffalo Creek flood, and the public outcry for justice it aroused, such performances by official-dom will no longer be tolerated. They are recognized for what they are — smoke screen tactics. They have served, at least in this one case, to reinforce the citizens’ determination that such an event shall not ever happen again — anywhere.