Don’t always trust a US Federal Mine Inspector – that was the painful lesson learned by unsuspecting residents of Buffalo Creek Hollow in West Virginia. On February 22 1972 the Pittston Coal Company’s Slurry Dam Number Three had been declared ‘satisfactory’ after inspection, despite having been built on accumulated coal waste created by large-scale strip mining rather than bedrock.
Four days later, after prolonged seasonal heavy rain, the ‘safe’ dam burst, overwhelming Dams Number One and Two downstream and unleashing 500 million liters of liquid coal waste on the unfortunate residents of Buffalo Creek Hollow. A number of coalmining hamlets were engulfed by a 10 m (33 ft) wave of black water and there was further damage in communities like Lundale, Saunders, Latrobe and Laredo.
Some 4,000 people were left homeless and over 500 houses were destroyed, along with business premises, mobile homes and 1,000 trucks or cars at a total cost of around $50 million. The local population was devastated by the loss of 125 lives (including seven bodies never found) and over 1,100 people were injured. The Pittston Coal Company and its I Buffalo Creek Mining subsidiary described the event as that old blame-dodging favorite, ‘an act of God’. The official enquiry hardly demurred, vaguely calling for legislation and a further investigation. An unofficial Citizen^ Commission was less forgiving, returning a ‘murder’ verdict against Pittston Coal.
Equally surprising was the financial outcome in the litigious USA Pittston Coal’s act-of-God defense didn’t stand up but the company managed to settle with survivors for $18.5 million (against $290 million claimed) while the state’s demand for $100 million for disaster relief costs was miraculously settled for just $1 million in 1977, days before the outgoing Governor left office. It all went to show that Big Coal was indeed king in West Virginia.
When: February 26 1972
Where: Logan County, West Virginia, USA
Death toll: 125 dead, 1,121 injured
You should know: Although coal impoundment dams like those at Buffalo Creek were banned by Federal statute in 1969, the regulations simply hadn’t been enforced. West Virginia passed a Dam Control Act in 1973 but failed to attach funds for its implementation – and in the 1990s it was estimated that there were still over 400 hazardous dams in the state.