Buffalo Creek disaster: A crime by any other name

Jeffrey Reiman, in The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison points out that when coal companies intentionally design disasters, these intentional acts are called an “accident” or a “tragedy.” The label “mass murder” is never applied.

Language is a powerful tool, and the power to define is more than a rhetorical device, it is an ideological weapon wielded by contending powers in society to shape the perceptions and images to suit the vested interests of the powerful. Historically, coal companies have been powerful actors in West Virginia.

The Buffalo Creek disaster must be understood in this context. On the morning of Feb. 26, 1972, the Pittston Coal dam failed. Although a Pittston official was alerted to the danger of the flood, the residents of Buffalo Creek were not warned. A 30-foot-high and 550-foot-wide wall of water, sludge and debris came crashing down upon the community of Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia. Some 130 million gallons of water swept through this narrow valley.

The disaster killed 125 people, injured 1,000 and left 4,000 homeless. More than 500 homes were lost or destroyed, 44 mobile homes demolished, 273 homes were severely damaged. More than 1,000 vehicles, 10 bridges and 30 businesses were destroyed. The property damage was $50 million.

In an attempt to absolve the company of legal responsibility, the Pittston Coal public relations office immediately issued a news release that said the flood was “an act of God.” The company's public relations ploy sparked community outrage. In 1967, the U.S. Department of the Interior warned state officials the Buffalo Creek dams and the other 29 dams throughout the state were unstable and dangerous.

A coal-refuse dam that was similar to the Buffalo Creek dam design had failed in Wales killing 147, including 116 school children. In 1969 the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Law outlawed coal impoundments that were designed like the Buffalo Creek dam. Court cases indicated that Pittston Coal and state agencies were aware of the Wales report and the risk factors associated with the coal-refuse dam.

A federal Bureau of Mines report following the flood indicated “the dams were not designed or engineered on the basis of a thorough knowledge of the engineering properties of coal processing refuse.” Although the dams were supposed to be inspected every two weeks, they were not.

Jack Spadaro, who investigated the Buffalo Creek disaster for West Virginia, concluded that the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey had received repeated warnings of the hazards of the dam at the head of Buffalo Creek prior to the flood. Three commissions studying the disaster, federal, state and citizen, concluded that Pittston had blatantly disregarded standard safety practices.

The Citizens' Commission concluded, “officials of the Buffalo Creek-Pittston Company are guilty of murdering at least 124 men, women and children living in the Buffalo Creek Hollow. “ The report indicated that the dam had failed previously. Although Pittston Coal and the state agencies were aware of the failure risks of the refuse dams, there was no action taken to prevent the accident.

In 1974, the Washington law firm, Arnold and Porter, won a $13.5 million settlement, less attorney fees, from Pittston for 600 survivors. In 1978, another 1,200 survivors, including many children, won $4.88 million. The payoff was about $2,700 per person. Pittston's insurance paid most of the settlement. Gov. Arch Moore accepted a $1 million settlement from Pittston as a complete payment for the state government's loss in the disaster, leaving West Virginia taxpayers with the $13 million unpaid costs.

No criminal charges were brought against the Buffalo mining executives for the creation of the illegal, makeshift, unstable refuse mine. Oval Damron, then Logan prosecutor, said that Pittston's failure to receive a state dam license was merely a misdemeanor and that the one-year statute of limitations for prosecutions had lapsed. He concluded that Buffalo Creek Mining could not be charged with negligent homicide because “there was no way to put a corporation in jail.”

Pittston Coal assured investors that the settlement did not impact the profit margin of the company. In other words, the lives of the people of Buffalo Creek were not as important at the company’s profit margin. The deaths didn’t even show up as a bleep on Pittston’s report to the stockholders. In 1973, the West Virginia Legislature passed the Dam Control Act, regulating all dams in the state. Funding, however, was never appropriated to enforce the law.

Thirty years after Buffalo Creek, 232 coal waste dams still loom over West Virginia. The United Health Administration and Mine Safety counts more than 1,000-coal waste dams in the United States. West Virginia has far more than any other state. Kentucky has 155 and Pennsylvania 132. Today the coal waste dams are larger than Pittston Coal refuse dam that failed in 1972. The three Buffalo Creek impoundments combined measured less than 500 acre-feet.

The coal refuse dams today, many of which date back before the Buffalo Creek disaster, measure 20,000 acre-feet. In West Virginia, there have been five coal waste impoundment failures in the past 20 years. A review of the Department of Environmental Protection coal dam safety files indicates of the 85 notices of violations issued since 1993. Between 1973 and 1986, state officials cited coal companies for dam-related problems 241 times.

The coal refuse dams are an “accident” waiting to happen. This time the communities are organized and aware of the issues. If another public relations expert dares to call the next impeding dam failure a “act of God,” the community reaction will more than just outrage.

– Dr. Julia D. Fox, director of Oral History of Appalachia program, Marshall University