They Said It Couldn’t Happen

[imgbelt img=buffalo-crek-2stretche526.jpg]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?


Buffalo Creek Revisited

February 26, 1972, 125 people were killed in rural West Virginia when waste and sludge from coal mining flooded small towns along Buffalo Creek.

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.