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Buffalo Creek Disaster (1972)

By Chris Moloney, Colorado State University, CO

 
 
Overview and Context

In late February 1972 a coal waste impoundment dam along the Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia collapsed.  The resulting flood killed 125 people and caused over $50 million in damage.  The disaster at Buffalo Creek remains one of America’s most costly and deadly preventable mining related catastrophes.  Following the Buffalo Creek flood three separate investigative commissions were established.  The investigations revealed that Pittson Coal Company—owners of the Buffalo Creek mine— improperly constructed the impoundment dam, known as Dam No. 3, and willfully disregarded safety concerns about Dam No.3 and two smaller dams.  The commission reports noted that West Virginia’s lax regulations, inspection policies and penalties for mine safety violators contributed to the Buffalo Creek disaster.  While Pittson Coal avoided criminal charges, three civil lawsuits filed by the flood survivors were successful.  The Buffalo Creek flood led to the development of more rigorous State and Federal mine safety regulations.

 

Origins of Disaster

Coal mining was a staple in Logan County, West Virginia.  The Lorado Coal Company opened the coal mine on the middle fork of Buffalo Creek in 1945.  Standard practice for coal mine operations was to dispose of mine refuse, excess water and other debris wherever was most convenient.  Thus, Lorado Coal constructed a single dam, Dam No. 1, across the middle fork of Buffalo Creek to contain the wastewater, sludge and refuse from their mining operation.  In 1965, Lorado Coal sold the Buffalo Creek mine to the Buffalo Mining Company.  A year later Buffalo Mining constructed a second dam, Dam No. 2, behind Dam No. 1 to hold back additional wastewater and refuse.  Investigations and complaints in the late 1960s revealed that Dam 1 and Dam 2 were both constructed without permits.  However, West Virginia authorities did not shut down the mining operation.  In 1970 Buffalo Mining sold to the Pittson Coal Company, which took over the Buffalo Creek mine.  Pittson Coal set to work building a larger dam, Dam No. 3, upstream from the previous two.  Upon completion, Dam No. 3 stood fifty feet high and was over four hundred fifty feet across.  Partial dam failures during Pittson Coal’s ownership of the Buffalo creek mine occurred in 1971 and 1972; however, the mine remained opened.

 

The Flood

Around 8 a.m., February 26, 1972, after several wet winter days, Dam No. 3 collapsed, releasing 132 million gallons of water, coal waste, silt and other debris.  The torrent of sludgy water destroyed Dams No. 1 and No. 2 and obliterated the small town of Saunders, West Virginia, located just south of the mining site.  The floodwater funneled downhill through the narrow Buffalo Creek Valley causing massive destruction to 15 additional towns before eventually emptying into the Guyandotte River three hours and seventeen miles later.  In the wake of the flood, 125 people were dead, or missing, including entire families, 4,000 people were injured or homeless and over $50 million in damage had been caused.   Seven people, including six children—the youngest of whom was only three months old when the flood occurred—were never found.

 

Aftermath

Tempers and public outrage increased following the flood, when officials from Pittson Coal deflected responsibility for the flood, deeming it an “act of God.”  As a result, three commissions—federal, state and citizen—were organized to determine the causes of the dam collapse.  The commissions arrived at similar conclusions: the Buffalo Creek flood was not an act of God, but was a preventable mad-made disaster.  The commissions determined that Pittson Coal utilized improper dam engineering and construction techniques, and failed to adequately inspect or maintain the three dams along Buffalo Creek.  The commissions also determined that mining safety regulations and enforcement at the state level were lacking, likely contributing to the disastrous flood.

A West Virginia grand jury failed to criminally indict Pittson Coal.  Nevertheless, two civil lawsuits filed against Pittson by the flood survivors yielded favorable verdicts and damage awards of $13.8 and $4.8 million respectively.  A third civil suit, State of West Virginia v. Pittson Coal Company, sought $100 million in damages on behalf of the citizens of the Buffalo Creek Valley and the state, which hoped to recoup funds spent on recovery efforts following the flood.  However, three days before leaving office, Gov. Arch Moore, who had close ties to the coal industry within the state, agreed to an out of court settlement with Pittson Coal for just $1 million.  The Buffalo Creek disaster encouraged the state of West Virginia to bolster oversight and mine safety regulations, culminating in passage of the Dam Control Act.  Following the Buffalo Creek flood, nationwide inspections of similar waste impoundment dams were conducted.  Federal mining regulations and inspections were strengthened, as were the penalties for safety violations.

 

See also:

Canadian Mining Scandals; Coal Mining; Mining Safety and Health

Further Reading

Erikson, Kai. Everything in its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.


The Buffalo Creek Flood and Disaster: Official Report from the Governor’s Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry, 1973.

Reference: Buffalo Creek Disaster

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