Coal Crimes of Buffalo Creek
Let us imagine that one day a natural disaster hits your town, you watched everyone you know lose their homes, and for some, their lives. Your life view most likely would be skewed for some time, but who could you blame? Nature? God? While tragic, an act of nature or god most often carries no great amount of blame with it. This is not the case in the Buffalo Creek incident however. It is important to note that the people of the Buffalo Creek area were deeply traumatized by this event, and their trust violated by those responsible for this incident.
The Buffalo Creek incident is one of the most widely studied disasters in the U. S. and as Kai T. Erikson writes in his prologue to Everything in Its Path “It was a fairly contained disaster, as such things go, having taken place on a scale small enough to allow one to see it whole,”. There were a number of variables leading into that day, the day the “dam” gave way, and throughout the course of this paper I intend to trace the pattern back to the source of this disaster, the creator of a situation that certainly does deserve blame.
What it comes down to in the aftermath of this disaster is whether to cast the guilt on the coal company that created the environment for this disaster, or the people of the valley who some might say had failed to save themselves. The coal company would trivialize the loss that the people of this valley community had undergone and try to label the flood an “act of God”. (Stern) I however, soundly took the side of these mountain people as I read about the coal industry’s molestation of their land, and the destruction of WV life as they had once known it.
The coal industry creeped its way into the lives of West Virginians over the better part of a century. Although coal had always been rich in West Virginia’s land and it was know for sometime to be that way, coal companies did not gain access to most areas of WV including Logan County until the very early 1900‘s as railroads invaded the hills and valleys. Coal Company employment greatly changed the lives of W. Virginians over time, bringing them down from the mountain farms they used to live on, to factory like homes constructed in crowded valley mining towns.
The miners of Logan County were also influenced heavily from the company to remain non-union workers which is to the ultimate benefit of the industry rather than the miner. The popularity of the studies into this disaster are not only beneficial to our response to disasters that are both man made and acts of god, but also to promote the protection and safety of a company’s workers through stricter safety guidelines.
On the morning of February 26, 1972 132 million gallons of black water and coal waste forced its way through the impoundments that the Buffalo Mining Company had built in three stages over the p of two or three years. The Pittston Coal Company did not feel they needed to say sorry or offer retribution for the damages caused by their poor management and supervision of dam construction, this act is what sparked the defiance in the people victimized by the flood. (Erikson)
Immediately following the disaster Pittston began doing damage control for the protection of the company and tried to place all of the responsibility away from themselves during the ensuing legal battles. Pittston lawyers immediately began treating the people left behind in the wake of the disaster as “potential adversaries in court action”, questioning them not about the state of their living conditions but instead about their ill will against the company (Erikson).
During one of the interviews included in Everything in Its Path a former mine worker said Lawyers had asked him “Do you have any hard feelings against Pittston? ” and “Do you believe they’ll talk to people? ”. While these actions may have seemed like sensible legal maneuvers in Pittston’s legal team, they proved to seed a deep resentment toward the coal company in the minds of Buffalo Creek’s residents. The second mistake Pittston made, as described in The Buffalo Creek Disaster, was them stating that “the break in the dam was caused by flooding—an Act of God. (Stern). Throughout the works of both Kai T. Erikson and Gerald M. Stern there is a general consensus that the valley community being a largely religious group of people were provoked by this statement. In this respect Pittston ultimately did more to embolden their “adversaries” than they did to protect themselves from monetary loss in the end.
Pittston Coal Company and the Buffalo Mining Company are the responsible parties for this man made disaster from the beginning of it’s creation until the day of the flood. The Buffalo Mining Co. nd Pittston both failed to learn from past mistakes during the construction of the dam system. Pittston ignored the poor quality of the dams built, previous complaints about the lack of emergency run off systems, and multiple previous failures of the dams which were simply patched and reinforced in the same faulty manner as the original was made. In March of 1971 several Coal Company officials noted that there was a significant slumping in dam 3 and it was estimated at “150 to 200 feet wide across the face of the dam and 20 to 30 feet from the face back. by testimony of Ben Tudor, General Superintendent, Buffalo Mining Company. Later that same month it was recorded that a West Virginia Department of Natural Resources inspector had listed a “ “. . . lack of emergency spillway or overflow system from upper impoundment. ” (In this instance, “upper impoundment” refers to Dam No. 3. )”.
Despite these and many other alarming findings, no significant improvements were made before the dam system’s failure in 1972. (Kelley). On the day of the disaster, citizens of Buffalo Creek Valley had little or no warning from Pittston or the Buffalo Mining Co. f the impending danger until the wall of water had descended upon them. “Pittston Coal neglected to warn The Mining Bureau, the National Guard, the State Police, and even the Logan County Sheriff’s office. ” (Stern). In Everything in Its Path Erikson includes several accounts of victims who had been given no warning at all that there was danger of a flood at that time. The importance of this disaster and its aftermath has permanently touched the way we handle disaster prevention, relief, post traumatic counseling, and hopefully future litigation.
While the magnifying glass initially was held over the coal industry and specifically on the legal battle that the people of Buffalo Creek eventually would win, its scope has continued to broaden over years and will remain an important learning tool for use in varieties of disasters on the earth and humanity. Consider the lessons to be learned by all companies and corporations in respect to how they monitor the safety of their employees and the communities they have potential impact on.
I ask you to consider the victims of the Buffalo Creek flood as brave pioneers into the world of disasters, and appreciate the advancements that have been made possible by their bravery. References Erikson, K. T. (1976). Everything in its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. Kelley, J. H. , Dr. (1973). The Buffalo Creek Flood and Disaster: Official Report from the Governor’s Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry. West Virginia Archives & History.