Encyclopedia of Appalachia
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Buffalo Creek Flood

One of the worst environmental disasters in modern Appalachian history occurred on February 26, 1972, when the Buffalo Creek Dam broke and sent more than 130 million gallons of water and sludge flooding through Logan County, West Virginia. By the end of the day, sixteen coal-mining communities had been destroyed, and at least 125 people were dead. Seven were never found. Of the survivors, 1,100 were injured, and 4,000 were left homeless.
Buffalo Creek Dam was built as a result of efforts in the early 1960s to clean up streams in coal-mining communities. Known as coal-waste dams, or impoundments, these constructions were tools for filtering solid waste from streams that flowed from mines into towns. Buffalo Creek Dam was constructed as a succession of three such impoundments. Early on February 26, after several days of rain, the dams began to collapse. At 6:00 a.m., Dam No. 3 (the farthest upstream) began to fail. Within two hours, all three dams had given away, and by 8:05 a.m., the first town was flooded. Immediately following the disaster, the U.S. Department of the Interior began an investigation. Three separate reports by the Bureau of Mines, the Bureau of Reclamation, and a geological survey team headed by dam experts came to the same conclusion—Dam No. 3 had not been built to hold large quantities of water. Further investigation suggested negligence on the part of Pittston Coal Company, sole stockholder in the Buffalo Mining Company and owner and builder of Buffalo Creek Dam. At the time of the flood, Pittston had the second-lowest safety rating of any American coal company. By 1971, the company’s record showed nine fatal accidents, 743 serious injuries, and five thousand federal safety violations, including three violations of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 during construction of the Buffalo Creek Dam. In 1967, more than four years before the disaster, the Department of the Interior had warned officials that the dam was unstable. According to Thomas N. Bethell, then research director of the United Mine Workers of America, Pittston also knew twenty-four hours in advance that the water was rising behind Dam No. 3 and that the forecast predicted no decrease in rainfall. Although the company failed to warn communities downstream, its officials disavowed responsibility for the disaster, stating that "the dam was simply incapable of holding the water God poured into it."

Convinced that Pittston was not going to take responsibility for the flood, the people of Logan County formed the Citizens Commission to Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster. A group of about thirty citizens traveled to the stockholders’ meeting in Richmond, Virginia, to express anger and request compensation. People who lost their entire homes asked for $15,000, but Pittston reduced the amount to $3,000 to $5,000. Unwilling to accept the offer, nearly six hundred citizens sued Pittston for negligence and demanded restitution for property damages and "psychic impairment." In 1974, more than two years after the flood, Pittston settled out of court for $13 million, although property damage was estimated at $50 million.

In the months following the disaster, federal, state, and local relief was offered to survivors. The Red Cross and Salvation Army set up shelters and provided food, and work was begun to rebuild railroads, bridges, and remove debris. In addition, new sewage, water, and transportation systems and permanent housing developments were promised. However, few of these plans came to fruition. By 1976, communities were still suffering, and nearly one hundred families were still displaced. Furthermore, rates of mental illness, depression, and domestic violence had grown tremendously. Though the Buffalo Creek flood sparked environmental awareness and government reform, law enforcement still proved difficult. After the disaster, new regulations were added to the existing Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. In addition, Congress passed the National Dam Inspection Act of 1972 mandating the inspection of each dam in the United States; by 1977, however, not a single dam had been inspected and there had been several other collapses. In 1973 the West Virginia legislature passed the Dam Control Act to regulate all dams in the state, but adequate funding was never appropriated. The Buffalo Creek disaster did help lead to federal passage of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Twenty years after the Buffalo Creek disaster, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources estimated that there were still four hundred hazardous dams in the state. See also: COAL MINING; COAL SLURRY IMPOUNDMENTS.

—Heather Rhea Gilreath, East Tennessee State University Thomas N. Bethell and Davitt McAteer, The Pittston Mentality: Manslaughter on Buffalo Creek (1972); Kai T. Erikson, Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood (1976); Mimi Pickering, The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man, Appalshop videocassette (1975).

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