Monday, February 26, 2007

February 26

When the Buffalo Creek Dam burst 35 years ago today in Logan County, West Virginia, officials from Pittston Coal Company -- which owned the failed complex -- heartlessly described it as an “act of God.”

After a month of snow and two solid days of rain, the crude “gob pile” dam ruptured, pouring 132 million gallons of black waste water into Buffalo Creek Hollow, where sixteen mining communities lay in a seventeen-mile stretch of creek leading to the Guyandotta River. Beginning with the destruction of Saunders, where eighteen people died, the sludge rushed along at five miles an hour and leveled Pardee, Lorado, Stowe, Robinette, Kistler and eleven other impoverished towns. Within three hours, 125 people were dead, more than a thousand were injured, and 80 percent of the hollow’s 5000 residents were homeless, Over a third of those killed came from the town of Lundale, which was reduced to a mound of splinters. Seven of the dead -- six of whom were small children -- were never found.

Residents of the valley beneath the Buffalo Creek dam had complained for years about the structure, which many believed to be unsafe. After the disaster in 1972, investigators learned that the Pittston Coal Company had not properly licensed the dam when it was first constructed, nor did they construct an emergency drainage system ; they also learned that company officials had inspected the dam several times over the previous two days and elected not to warn anyone of their worries that it might fail. This was hardly surprising, since the company clearly did not care about its employees or their families to begin with. Cited for hundreds of safety violations and fined more than a million dollars in 1971, Pittston has paid to that point a grand total of $275. In all, $50 million worth of property damage occurred in Logan County that day -- a figure roughly equal to the $44 million in profits Pittston earned the previous year. Constructing a safer dam at Beaver Creek would have reduced those profits by perhaps $200,000.

The governor of West Virginia -- a much-despised man named Arch Moore -- put together an investigative commission made up of coal industry supporters and government officials. In protest, an independent citizens’ committee investigated the dam failure and released a report of its own.
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.
The citizens' committee further observed that no acts of god were discernible in the disaster. After several years of legal battles on its own behalf, the Pittston Coal Company settled out of court for an amount equal to about $2400 for each of the 5000 victims of the flood, living and dead. Governor Moore eventually settled the state's suit against Pittston for a mere $1 million -- roughly ten percent of the cost of the clean-up effort, which the citizens of West Virginia paid for.

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