Coal Tattoo

Remembering the Buffalo Creek Disaster

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(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.