Remembering the Buffalo Creek Disaster

February 26, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

(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)

Today is one of those days on the West Virginia calendar, a day that will live on in memories and newspaper clippings as a symbol of why we have strong laws on the books to regulate the actions of those in charge of the coal industry … It was 41 years ago that a series of poorly designed, badly constructed, and weakly regulated coal slurry dams failed on Buffalo Creek in Logan County.  The results are well known, and have been summarized here before:

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.

For folks who want to read more today, I’d recommend going back to our 1997 Gazette series, Voices of Buffalo Creek, which is available online here. It’s also worth reading my friend Dr. Paul Nyden’s dissertation chapter about Buffalo Creek, which is online here. Part of the official state report on the disaster is online here.

It’s always worth remembering that problems with coal-slurry dams are far from a thing of the past, something found only in our history books.  Only in December, a United Mine Workers member was killed when part of a slurry dam at CONSOL Energy’s Robinson Run Mine collapsed. Two weeks ago, the federal government came in to try to force the closure of an unsafe slurry dam up in Barbour County.  Coal industry lobbyists and public relations agents — along with their friends among West Virginia’s political leadership — would rather the public not know about ongoing problems with coal slurry dams around the state.  But recent reports remind us of the dangers, and show again why a strong federal oversight of the coal industry is needed.

One of the best things to read on a day like today is  Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens’ Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community, which concluded:

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.

7 Responses to “Remembering the Buffalo Creek Disaster”

  1. First off, thank you so much for this and for all of your work, Ken. If anyone’s interested in more on the Buffalo Creek Flood, the 1975 Appalshop film “The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man” is streaming in its entirety on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpsR6vOY87o); and last year, for Buffalo Creek’s 40th anniversary, WMMT-FM (the Appalshop’s community radio station) ran a special program hosted by filmmaker Mimi Pickering that featured clips from the original film alongside interviews with Jack Spadaro and Shaunna Scott, a professor at UK who has been researching the 2000 Martin County slurry disaster (link to that here: http://www.wmmt.org/archives/2327).

  2. PJD says:

    I remain amazed to this day how the President and CEO of Pittston Coal, owner of the Buffalo Creek facility at the time, Mr. Nicholas Kamicia, escaped all blame and responsibility.

    The son of poor Italian-West-Virginian immigrants and a miner himself once, he died a contented and rich man at 92 in 2008, with industry awards and kudos heaped on him, like the National Coal Associations’ “Distinguished Service Award”, the “Man of Conscience Award” which was awarded just 3 years after the disaster (really!), and something called the “Americanism Award” in 1978. Virginia Tech also has an endowed chair of mining engineering named after him. A Google search of his name shows all this and more, but not a mention of Buffalo Creek anywhere. It seems that the disaster slid off him and his conscience like water off the back of a duck.

  3. Thank you Ken for reminding us of the horror of the Buffalo Creek disaster, and especially for including the powerful statement from the Citizens Commission. It was those folks who encouraged us to come from Appalshop to document their first hearing – we stayed and made two films that I hope have helped to show that this was not “an act of God” and that we must constantly keep the pressure on to stop these company-made disasters that harm the people and the land.

  4. Rhmooney3 says:

    THIS event was the biggest factor in the creation of OSMRE (The federal Office of Surface Mining) in 1977, but that agency never acknowledges it nor other tragedies that have occurred since then.

    Making “pretty” instead of protecting lives has become the mission of OSMRe.

    Coal mines kill and injure non-miners too.

  5. PJD says:

    Actually the OSMRE was created by SMCRA, their role in impoundments is incidental and small comapred to the state agencies and MSHA who actually review and enforce the execution of the engineering plans for the impoundments.

    I’d love it if coal waste impoundments, or at least upstream-constructed ones, were banned altogether. But this would require enabling legislation by the state or federal governments. And, if such legislaton was proposed, or even if the agencies were funded and staffed so as to enforce existing regulations more thoroughly, the cries of “job killing big-government socialists” woud ring up and down the hollows.

    When a major crime ocurrs in a rough part of town, is the police department the first to be blamed for it?

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    PJD,

    Yes, OSMRE was created by SMCRA, but there’s really no question that Buffalo Creek played a huge role in pushing Congress to pass that law in the first place … see for example, http://www.osmre.gov/congress/leghistory/congressrpts/042277.pdf

    “… the necessity to include regulation of the surface effects of underground coal mining is also apparent to the committee. The Buffalo Creek disaster, in which over 125 people were killed, resulted from the failure of an impoundment constructed from waste from an underground mine.”

    That’s just one example.

    Ken.

  7. Rhmooney3 says:

    Ken,

    It would be good to see a tally of non-miner deaths and injuries from coal mines.

    I departed OSMRe as an acting field office director in 1995 — after being there for 17 years — in great part due to being unable to prevent the foreseeable collapse of Interstate 77 in Ohio as a result of a surface coal mine being allowed by the state to dewater an abandoned underground mine that was beneath miles of the interstate.

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