The fatal flood of Buffalo Creek in southern West Virginia happened forty years ago, February 26. More disasters from coal-mining waste have followed. Why have these events not been etched into the national memory, like the Exxon Valdez spill and Deepwater Horizon explosion?
Many of us reacted with indignation when eleven workers died and the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile shorelands and waters were defiled by the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. Many of us also remember the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, the environmental and economic effects of which are felt even today.
When it comes to environmental disasters in the United States, we are often drawn to those that seem to spoil what we have come to know as pristine “nature,” those places that fit nicely on postcards but do not usually conjure images of people working and living.
But how many of us remember the Buffalo Creek Mining Disaster, February 26, 1972? On that day 125 West Virginians were killed as 130 million gallons of coal sludge inundated town after town in an Appalachian hollow. This Sunday is the 40th anniversary of the flood that destroyed families, livelihoods, and trust in the institutions that are supposed to keep us safe. On this day the residents of Buffalo Creek will remember.
It rained for days leading up to the morning of February 26. Above the towns of Saunders, Lundale, Pardee, Lorado, Crites, and others, three aptly-named gob dams constructed from the detritus of coal mining (shale, mine dust, poor quality coal, earth scrapings, waste from processing) collapsed, one after the other in a terrible domino effect. Mine number three gave way first, bringing tons of debris on to mines two and three. The people in low lying areas of the hollow were doomed as a wall of coal sludge and water 30 feet high crashed through the valley, sluicing from side to side as it carried off human life.
One hundred and thirty million gallons of man-made waste, the hidden cost of our addiction to fossil fuel.
On the previous evening and the morning of the February 26th, officials from Buffalo-Pittston Mining Company inspected the operations. But even as the rain continued, the company kept pumping water into the dam. No warnings were ever given to the people living below. After all, it couldn’t happen because it hadn’t happened, at least not in the U.S..
In fact, it had happened in Wales six years earlier: 166 people had been killed in a coal-waste avalanche, 1966. One hundred sixteen of the victims were children. In West Virginia, it took approximately two hours for the wall of slurry to make its way through the hollow to the Guyandotte River, some 18 miles away, carrying homes, cars, bridges, trees, and human corpses in its frothy torrent. Of the 125 dead, three babies remain unidentified. Six children under age two and one elderly man were never found.
Officials from Pittston Mining called it an Act of God.
Forty years later it is tempting to think of the Buffalo Creek disaster as something that could only have occurred long ago, before regulations and inspections were in place. But such regulations and inspections were in place then, as they are now.
Has anything changed?
In October, 2000, a coal sludge containment pond collapsed through a mine shaft in Martin County, Kentucky, sending 306 million gallons of coal waste and sludge into creeks, tributaries, and rivers and contaminating drinking water for 27,000 residents. Virtually all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek perished. To put this into perspective, the Martin Country spill was nearly 30 times greater than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. But it happened in Appalachia.
The largest coal spill of all occurred in Kingston, Tennessee, in December, 2008, when over one billion gallons of coal ash slurry broke through a dike, contaminating the Emory and Clinch Rivers. This time, no one was injured but the environmental effects on wildlife and drinking waster have yet to be fully known.
Yet the coverage and the outrage that this disaster presumably would arouse were, and still are, negligible. Is this because for those outside the region the people here are negligible? What would it take for the indignation of West Virginians to reach us here in the Northeast?
In Sundial, West Virginia, the Marsh Fork elementary school sits just below 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge held back by an earthen dam approximately 400 yards away. After years of community activism, a new school is finally being built, and it will open its doors in 2013. Until then, we will just have to hope that the dam will hold.
William Major is an associate professor of English at Hillyer College, University of Hartford.