The Buffalo Creek Disaster occured more than thirty years ago, in 1972, and was one of the deadliest floods in the United States. The flood happenned in West Virginia at Buffalo Creek Hollow. The flood was blamed on the mining industry and their negligence. Hundreds of people died and thousands were injured.
Buffalo Creek and Coal Mining
Buffalo Creek licks out a 17-mile narrow valley in the heart of Appalachia in Logan County, West Virginia, before it spills out into the Guyandotte River at Man, WV. At the beginning of the 20th century, the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad brought miners to the valley to dig after the vast coal reserves beneath the mountains there, and by the 1950s, several towns had been established along Buffalo Creek for workers in the Buffalo Creek mines. As early as 1957, the Buffalo Creek Mining Company, overseen by Pittston Coal Company the largest coal corporation in America at the time, began dumping waste from coal mining operations into the Middle Fork Branch of the creek, above the town of Saunders, West Virginia. A few years later, they built the first of three dams, constructed solely out of piled waste from the mines with no engineering input, which created a pool behind the dam of black water. Six years later they constructed a second dam 600 feet upstream, and in 1968, the company began dumping more waste 600 feet higher than Dam No. 2, to make a third dam, No. 3, which was 45-60 feet high.
In 1971, Dam No. 3 failed, but No. 2 held and stopped the flood. There was a public outcry for Pittston to take safety measures in reinforcing the dams, but by then Pittston had already challenged and won against most of more than 5,000 citations for safety violations, and no action was taken to reinforce the dams.
Late February, 1972, rain fell almost continuously for days. The night of the 25th, Buffalo Mining Co. monitored Dam No. 3 every two hours, but residents in the towns below were not notified of any potential danger. Two sheriffs that arrived to evacuate the area were sent away by company officials.
At 8:00 a.m. on February 26, Denny Gibson, a heavy machinery operator for the Buffalo Mining Co., noticed that the water level had reached the top of the dam, reporting that the embankment was “real soggy.” Five minutes later, the dam gave way. The two lower dams were demolished instantly by an estimated 132 million gallons of black water, which funneled into the valley, creating a twenty-foot-high wall of water that traveled at an average of seven feet per second. Over the next two hours, the water rushed down Buffalo Creek, obliterating nearly everything in its path, before it emptied into the Guyandotte River. By 11:00 a.m., the flood had subsided.
There was no hope for towns closest to the dams. Everything there was gone, taken with the flood down the valley. Only traces of the higher settlements were left. Farther down, warning was given with just enough time to flee to the higher ground at the sides of the valley, but the people who escaped were forced to watch as the flood washed away their homes, possessions, and stragglers. 125 people died in the flood, 1,100 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless. It caused $50 million in property damages, including over 1,000 destroyed cars and trucks and 1,500 badly damaged homes, 546 of which were completely destroyed. “Clean-up” of the area by the Army Corps of Engineers cost $3.7 million.
Shortly after the flood, the Buffalo Creek Mining Company began making small offers to residents of the area to settle damages. The offers in almost all cases were far below the actual damage, but many accepted the settlements out of desperation. Those who would not accept sued the coal companies. The people in the largest suit enlisted the help of lawyers who had recently won a landmark case for reformation of the United Mine Workers’ pension fund, which aided coal miners in West Virginia.
The lawyers began interviewing survivors of the disaster and discovered that many of them had incurred severe psychological damage, similar to soldiers in World War II. In order to secure the capability for a sufficient recovery, the lawyers were able to prove that Pittston, the coal supergiant, was actually responsible for the disaster. This allowed them to sue Pittston for $64 million in damages, believing that the psychological damage was grounds for a much higher amount. 125 families were party to the case.
Pittston defended with the claim that the disaster was an “Act of God”, and that no recovery could be granted.
Over the following months, both sides built their cases, and many experts in psychology (both for and against Pittston) were called in to evaluate the mental states of the survivors. They concluded that most had permanent “psychic impairment”, which later became known as “Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome”. It was the first case where damages were awarded for post-traumatic stress.
The case came very close to trial, but as a trial neared, Pittston lawyers began to fear that the judge would decide in favor of the victims. Both sides settled for $13.5 million – about $30 million by today’s standards – to be paid to the victims. Depending on the extent of damage incurred by each family, the average amount awarded per person was over $13,000.
The disaster was a result of the Pittston Coal Company’s coal slurry impoundment dam #3 burst four days after having been declared satisfactory by a federal mine inspector. The flood released 132 million gallons of black water waste among the 16 coal mining hamlets in Buffalo Creek Hollow. 125 people were killed, 1,121 injured, and over 4,000 people were left homeless.
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