This is a repost of a diary I wrote in 2010.  Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the Buffalo Creek, West Virginia dam collapse that killed 125 people, many children, on a rainy Saturday morning in 1972.  The story begins inside..

The whole thing just happens over and over again in my dreams.
                                            Flood survivor quoted in
                                            Kai T. Erikson, Everything in Its Path
After the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway built a spur line up the Buffalo Creek hollow in 1912 to service proposed mines intent on extracting coal from the West Virginia hills, sixteen tiny coal towns sprang up along its length.  Originally company towns populated primarily with European immigrants recruited to work the coal mines, the population of these small towns grew, peaked, and then declined as mechanization replaced human labor and operations shifted to strip-mining.  Still, by the early 1970s, about five thousand people, many descendants of those original Italian, Polish, and Slavic miners, still resided in the steep-walled "hollow" .

In the early years, mining companies just dumped the waste from their coal processing operations into the nearest waterway, but nascent environmental laws in the fifties and sixties put an end to that practice.  Instead, mining companies started constructing crude sedimentation reservoirs to hold the watery slurry of mine tailings.

Buffalo Creek consists of 3 branches. As part of its strip mining operations, the Buffalo Mining Company, a subsidiary of the Pittston Coal Company, began dumping gob -- mine waste consisting of mine dust, shale, clay, low-quality coal, and other impurities -- into the Middle Fork branch as early as 1957. Buffalo Mining constructed its first gob dam, or impoundment, near the mouth of Middle Fork in 1960. Six years later, it added a second dam, 600 feet upstream. By 1968, the company was dumping more gob another 600 feet upstream. By 1972, this third dam ranged from 45 to 60 feet in height. The dams and coal mine waste had turned Middle Fork into a series of black pools.
West Virginia Division of Culture and History: Buffalo Creek
The type of construction employed on the retention reservoirs was not what anyone would call high-tech.  Find a narrow valley or gully, pile up a bunch of the rubble being scraped off the surface into an embankment across the cut, and start dumping the mine tailings and waste water from processing the coal behind it.  There wasn't a lot of engineering expertise involved.

By 1969 the second gob dam at Buffalo Creek was beginning to silt-in, and the company began construction on a new dam upstream of the first two.  This one, holding some 130 million gallons, was much larger than the previous two.  It stretched almost 500 feet across the valley and towered fifty feet or more above the valley floor.  Like the first two, the company had not bothered to obtain a license to build it.

The type of construction used by the Buffalo Mining Company was, in fact, outlawed later in 1969 but that was after the dams on Buffalo Creek had been constructed, so even though un-licensed, they would have been  "grandfathered" under the new regulation.  When the Buffalo Mining Company was bought by the Pittston Coal Company, the reservoirs, including the partially-completed third dam, came along as part of the package.  

[T]he Pittston Company was the leading independent producer of coal in America and ranked fourth in production among all U.S. coal-mining concerns. The company owned 374,969 acres in Appalachia, making it the fifth largest corporate landowner in the region, and had reserves of 1.5 billion tons of mostly high-grade metallurgical coal - the coal needed to make steel. Headquartered in New York City, Pittston also owned an oil company, Brink's armored car company, forty percent of the warehouses in New York City, and a large trucking firm.
Pittston bought the Buffalo Mining Company in June 1970 to increase its supply of immediately available metallurgical coal. The company completed construction of the large coal-waste dam on Buffalo Creek and was running the production from eight mines through the preparation plant located above the dam.
appalshop.org: The Pittston Company Before The Flood
In 1971, the embankment making up the Number 3 dam partially collapsed, but the water level was low and the failure did not result in flooding.  The company dumped in more mine rubble to shore up the dam.  About 500 tons of watery mine waste was being pumped into the pond behind the dam every day.

On February 22, 1972, a federal mine inspector and the company safety engineer inspected the dams and judged their condition to be acceptable.

In late February, 1972, rain began to fall.  By the 25th, rain had been falling steadily for several days, with the water behind the dam rising at a rate of one to two inches per hour.  Although heavier than  normal but not unusual for West Virgina in late winter, the rains were of sufficient concern that by the evening of the 25th the mining company had employees checking the reservoirs every two hours (though not of sufficient concern to stop pumping the daily production of waste into the pond).  Despite the company's concern, two sheriff's deputies who had been sent to consult with the mining officials regarding a potential evacuation were sent away.  

Around 1:30 am on February 26th, a mine employee inspecting the dam was alarmed to find the water within 12 inches of the top of the dam and signs of "soft spots" on the face.  He notified mine officials but no warning was ever issued to the public.  

Around 7:45 am,  four mine employees, including the superintendent from the No. 5 mine, and  the man in charge of Buffalo Mining operations gathered on the top of the Number 3 dam.  According the account of one, “We all stomped on the dam and said  ‘This is going to hold; there’s no way it can break.’ ”  After the men had walked back down to the road, gotten in their car, and started to drive back to the mines, they heard a sound like an explosion and their car was suddenly showered with dirty, black water.

Just prior to 8:00 a.m. on February 26, heavy-equipment operator Denny Gibson discovered the water had risen to the crest of the impoundment and the dam was "real soggy." At 8:05 a.m., the dam collapsed. The water obliterated the other two impoundments and approximately 132 million gallons of black waste water rushed through the narrow Buffalo Creek hollow.
West Virginia Division of Culture and History: Buffalo Creek
photo: WV Gazette
The town of Saunders, not far from the base of the dams, was entirely obliterated almost instantly.  A wall of black coal slurry thirty feet high crashed through the hollow, switchbacking violently from side to side down the valley cut by the twisting creek, sometimes reducing a cluster of houses to splinters while sparing others just a few feet away, gathering rubble as the black wall of water thundered toward the Guyandotte River below.  It knocked bridges off footings and twisted railroad tracks like pretzels.  Residents living on higher ground watched in horror as neighbors in lower-lying areas were washed away in their homes.  People downstream, with more warning, scrambled for higher ground as the flood bore down on them.
Photo: Citizens Report

It took nearly two hours for the thick slurry to work its way down the twisting 18-mile valley and empty into the Guyandotte.  By 11:00am, an hour after the head of the torrent reached the Guyandotte, the last of the flood had emptied into the river, leaving a trail of death and devastation in its wake.

In a matter of minutes, the deadly avalanche of coal slurry left 125 dead, including three infants who were never identified and seven missing bodies never recovered, six of them two years old and younger.  Over a thousand were injured.  The homes of four thousand people -- four-fifths of the hollow's population -- were destroyed.

Photo: Citizens Report
As the residents of the valley searched for missing family members and friends, and emergency workers and volunteers struggled to clear away rubble left by the flood as they searched for survivors and the bodies of the dead, Pittston company officials rushed before the media to declare the disaster an "Act of God" they had been powerless to prevent, as the dam was simply, in the words of the company's executive vice-president Francis J. Palamara, "incapable of holding the water God poured into it."

But most close to the incident saw different culprits.

The Pittston Coal Company had developed a reputation that will sound all too familiar in light of  mining incidents that have made the news over the past few years.

In 1967, a break in one of the dams caused slight flooding in the hollow. State officials requested a few minor alterations to the impoundment. In February 1971, Dam No. 3 failed, but Dam No. 2 halted the water. The state cited Pittston for violations but failed to follow up with inspections. Pittston, which had developed a reputation for poor safety practices, was cited for over 5,000 safety violations at its mines nationally in 1971. It challenged each of the violations and paid only $275 of the $1.3 million levied in fines. By 1972, Pittston was the largest independent coal producer in the country and ranked second in the number of fatal and non-fatal accidents.
West Virginia Division of Culture and History: Buffalo Creek
Photo: appalshop.org
Whether the generous treatment of Pittston's violations had anything to do with the fact that Nixon administration Interior Secretary Rogers Morton's brother served on Pittston's Board of Directors is unknown.

The conditions that existed in West Virginia at the time of the Buffalo Creek dam collapse involved a cozy relationship between the government, the mine owners and operators, and even the unions.  The exposure of the events leading up to the Buffalo Creek collapse, and the tragedy that followed the tragedy, would do much to change that.

The collapse of a tailings dam in Wales in 1966, which killed 147, including 116 children at a school, had prompted Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, to order the U. S. Department of the Interior to undertake a survey of similar dams in the United States.  In 1967, the department conveyed its West Virgina findings to state officials in a report titled Report on Conditions of 38 West Virginia Coal Waste Dams.  The Buffalo Creek dams were among 32 in the state that were judged unstable and dangerous.  In response, four of the worst dams, judged in imminent danger of collapse, were repaired by mining companies with the assistance of state highway crews.  Nothing was done about the remaining unsafe dams in the report -- including those at Buffalo Creek -- nor were any arrangements made to carry out further inspections.

In 1968, concerned residents wrote to the Governor complaining about the condition of the dams and the mining company's failure to do anything about them.  Inspectors from the Public Service Commission and the Water Resources Division were sent to inspect the dams, but no action came about as a result of the inspections.

The federal government began an investigation of the tragedy, as did the state of West Virginia.  The state's investigative commission, appointed by industry-friendly Governor Arch Moore, Jr. -- who, at the time of the disaster, opined that the State of West Virginia was the "real victim" of the tragedy because of the adverse publicity it was getting -- was comprised almost exclusively of coal industry supporters and representatives of the very agencies whose negligence potentially made them complicit in the dam's collapse.  Outraged citizens and rank-and-file union members, anticipating a whitewash, demanded  that a coal miner be added to the commission.  The governor refused.

Photo: Citizens' Report
A Citizens' Commission hearing.
In response, a Citizen’s Commission composed of local residents, representatives of unions, environmental groups, Black Lung and disabled miners associations, and the ACLU convened to perform their own independent investigation of the disaster.  The title of their final report, Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens' Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community, gives the reader a preview of their findings.

The very first observation of the citizens' commission report offered a curt rebuff to the pronouncements of the Pittston Company. "FIRST, the flood was not an act of God. This terrible tragedy was caused by men, acting through corporations and governments."  The report continued with a blistering indictment of the mining company, and local, state, and federal governments for their actions (or lack of action) contributing to the disaster:

  1. Officials of the Buffalo Mining-Pittston Company are guilty of murdering at least 124 men, women and children living in Buffalo Creek Hollow.
  2. The Buffalo Mining-Pittston Company is guilty of gross negligence, willful violation of the law, and incomprehensible callousness to human needs and values.
    • a. The Company was grossly negligent in constructing and operating the refuse dam on its property.
    • b. The Company's first concern has been to increase its profits by using the same refuse dam to (1) dispose of refuse, (2) clarify waste water, and (3) store water.
    • c. The Company should have been aware the dam would fail, because the dam had a partial failure in 1971, and a smaller dam had completely collapsed in 1967.
    • d. The Company discharged waste water behind the dam even after the danger became apparent -- when the level of water approached the top of the dam.
    • e. The Company had installed no effective devices for maintaining the water at a safe level. Last minute efforts to relive pressure on the dam may have triggered its collapse.
    • f. The Company violated state and federal law since the dam was never approved for proper design and maintenance.
    • g. The Company was insensitive to its community responsibilities in that no system existed for warning people living downstream of the dam, although the Company must have known the dam was dangerous.
    • h. The Company showed callousness toward human suffering by failing to help with relief and rehabilitation efforts.

  3. State agencies involved are guilty of nonfeasance.
  4. State government is charged with negligence, buck-passing, and dereliction of its duty. Many laws and regulations that it is sworn to administer were given only token enforcement or completely ignored.
    • a. The Water Resources Division did not insure adequate decanting of the dam by means of spillways, pipes, siphons or pumps.
    • b. The Water Resources Division never penalized the company for polluting Buffalo Creek in 1967.
    • c. The Public Service Commission did not inspect the dam as required by state law.
    • d. The Public Service Commission took no action against the company to enforce compliance with the law.
    • e. The Reclamation Division did not exercise its legal jurisdiction over the area even though the reclamation chief and natural resources director were in the immediate vicinity the day before the disaster.
    • f. A letter from a resident of Buffalo Creek to former Governor Hulett Smith warning of the impending disaster brought about no preventive activity.
    • g. Governor Moore and former Governor Hulett Smith were warned in 1967, when the Department of the Interior sent each a copy of its study completed after a coal refuse disaster in Wales. No effective action was taken by either administration.

  5. Strip mining above the dam probably contributed to its over-filling and failure, since runoff from benches drained into the area.
  6. Federal government is charged with negligence and poor judgment in interpreting its own studies and data. The U.S. Bureau of Mines neglected to enforce its regulations requiring inspection of hazardous mine structures above ground.

Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens' Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community
Scathing though the Citizens' Commission report was, it was not official.  While the official state report, The Buffalo Creek Flood and Disaster: Official Report from the Governor's Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry (1973), was not as blistering, it nevertheless did not spare the mining company and the federal and even state regulators.  Noting numerous violations of state and federal laws and regulations leading up to the disaster, and evidence of blatant disregard for the safety of the population downstream of the dam in the hours preceding the disaster, the commission recommended extensive steps to prevent future tragedies.

Photo: West Virginia Div. of Culture & History
Noting that the commission, lacking subpoena power, was unable to "resolve adequately some of the conflicting testimony" and unable to corroborate some witness testimony, the report made no accusations of murder, but recommended, "that the proper judicial authority with subpoena power, after considering our report and any other pertinent information, determine if grand jury or other appropriate legal action should be taken."

A special grand jury was convened to determine if charges should be brought against Pittston, the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the West Virginia Public Service Commission, and other involved parties, but the grand jury failed to return indictments.  No other criminal action was taken against the responsible parties.

Oval Damron, then Logan prosecutor, said failure to get a state dam license was only a misdemeanor, and the one-year statute of limitations for prosecution had lapsed. He said Buffalo Mining couldn't be charged with negligent homicide because "there's no way to put a corporation in jail."
WV Gazette: Decisions on disaster puzzling.
Civil suits were a different matter.  The flood, which had caused an estimated $50 million in property damage, brought lawsuits from the victims and survivors.  One of the suits, brought by 625 adult residents seeking $32 million in damages, was settled out of court in 1972 for $13.5 million.  After legal fees, the average plaintiff received about $13,000.  A separate suit seeking $225 million, which was brought on behalf of 384 children who survived the flood, including four who were in utero at the time of the disaster, was settled in 1974 for $4.8 million.

The state itself suffered direct damages to roads and bridges estimated in the neighborhood of $13 million, plus the costs of emergency response, clean-up and other costs incurred in the wake of the flood, and a bill for $3.7 million from the Army Corps of Engineers for clean-up assistance.  The state sued Pittston for $100 million.  The state's case would drag out for four years before coming to a totally flabbergasting conclusion.

Governor Moore, facing a re-election campaign in 1972, proposed ten development projects for the hollow, but the few that actually materialized were finished far past their scheduled completion.  A planned 750-unit federal housing project petered out with only 17 model homes and 90 apartments built.

The state administration, even in those days not inclined to let a crisis pass un-capitalized-upon, seized the on condition of the valley following the flood to push through a long-thwarted plan to build a four-lane superhighway through the Buffalo Creek hollow into the next county, planning to use part of the relief funds allocated for Buffalo Creek to finance the highway.  The state condemned the necessary property for the highway right-of-way under eminent domain, but when they ultimately settled for just a standard two-lane highway, they refused to sell the unused property back to the homeowners.

Just three days before leaving office in 1977, term-limited Governor Arch Moore quietly settled the $100 million state suit against Pittston for a paltry one million dollars.  When the incoming administration of newly-elected  Democratic governor Jay Rockefeller started sorting out the financial condition of the state, they discovered a letter from the Army Corps of Engineers, received just days before Moore's $1 million settlement, threatening to sue the state over the still un-paid bill from the Buffalo Creek clean-up, now engorged by interest and penalties piling up at $2,000 a day.  The state fought the charges in court, but after losing before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1985 and being ordered to pay the $3.7 million plus $10 million in interest, the state negotiated a $9.5 million settlement with the Corps for Buffalo Creek and another smaller flood clean-up..

In 1990, Arch Moore plead guilty to five felonies and served two years, eight months in federal prison for campaign finance violations, extorting over a half-million dollars from a coal company, and obstructing investigators.  All of the charges stemmed from campaign activities in the nineteen-eighties.  None related to the Buffalo Creek era.

Six months after the Buffalo Creek collapse, Congress passed the National Dam Inspection Act of 1972, which directed the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to inventory and inspect the estimated 50,000 dams in the United States.  However, the executive-branch-controlled Office of Management and Budget refused to appropriate money for the inspections.  The program remained in limbo until Jimmy Carter took office and ordered the OMB to disburse the funding in 1977.  In the five years between the passage of the act and Carter's order to fund the inspections, four more dams had collapsed, killing 245 people.

The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed under the Carter administration in 1977 was partially a response to Buffalo Creek.  Additionally, new regulations were put into place to augment the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, but they did little that would prevent another Buffalo Creek

The new regulations reflected the position that the Interior Department had taken since the Buffalo Creek disaster - that under the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, it can only act to assure the safety of miners on the job.  Although a number of Congressmen involved in writing the 1969 Act contended that Interior's responsibility went far beyond worker safety, the Department continued to argue that mining conditions that affect nearby communities or might endanger public health and welfare lie outside its jurisdiction.
Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man Government Reform
Photo: Herald Dispatch and Charleston Gazette
The survivors of Buffalo Creek were offered counseling for the complex feelings of guilt, grief, and depression many were experiencing; clinicians, as well as academics from nearby colleges and universities, were pressed into service to help with the process, and in doing so, gained valuable insight into the then-emerging diagnosis of "survivor guilt syndrome".

Survivors also experienced other psychological impacts, then called "psychic impairment", which psychologists over the years would recognize as akin to symptoms soldiers then returning from Vietnam were exhibiting, as well victims of other tragedies.  In later years, those conditions would be re-named "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder".  The study of the Buffalo Creek survivors was instrumental in the development of our understanding of the condition.

The Buffalo Creek (W.Va.) flood is one of the most extensively examined and longest followed disasters in the psychiatric study of trauma. Twenty-seven years of follow-up research by teams of both psychodynamically oriented clinicians and empirically oriented researchers have stimulated a dialogue resulting in the refinement of research methods for both clinicians and empiricists.
American Journal of Psychiatry, "Assessing Long-Term Effects of Trauma: Diagnosing Symptoms of Avoidance and Numbing"
The reaction to the disaster, occurring as it did in the waning years of the Vietnam war protests and following over a decade of civil rights activism, bore the stamp of its times.  It is hard to imagine a grass-roots undertaking like the Citizens Commission occurring even a decade earlier.  

Many of the younger miners were themselves Vietnam war veterans and were influenced by the example of the social movements of the sixties and early seventies.   They helped lead a reform movement within the United Mine Workers called Miners For Democracy, born at the funeral of murdered UMW reform candidate Joseph "Jock" Yablonski in 1969.  Later in 1972, the reform slate ousted the operator-friendly UMW leadership, the reaction to the Buffalo Creek disaster serving as a significant straw piled on an the over-burdened back of the metaphorical camel.

Following a bitter strike in 1989, and the declining profitability of its minerals division throughout the nineties, Pittston began to wind down its coal operation, selling the last of its coal reserves in 2002 and terminating all coal operations by 2003.  That year, it changed its name to the Brinks Company after its security subsidiary.

After serving as governor for the state's legal limit of two consecutive terms, Jay Rockefeller  ran for the U.S. Senate in the 1984 election, a seat he won and still holds today.  In the gubernatorial race that year, West Virginia voters returned former governor Arch Moore, Jr. to office.

And that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from -- not from bored bureaucrats sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit.  They bring suffering on those who trust them and their products, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again.  We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along.  That's how regulation came to be.

Oh, yeah -- and one other thing.  Elections matter.  You can put the best regulations in the world down on paper, but they don't do a damn bit of good administered by people who refuse to implement them, or refuse to allocate the manpower to enforce them, or leave it to the foxes to police the henhouse.  People who don't believe government can work produce government that doesn't work.

You can submit online public comments on proposed rules and regulations at Regulations.gov
(h/t  to stusviews)

Previous installments of How Regulation came to be:

1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
The Iroquois Theater Fire
Radium Girls - Part I
Radium Girls - Part II
Radium Girls - Part III
Construction Summer
Red Moon Rising
The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part I
The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part II
Ground Fault, Interrupted
The Cocoanut Grove
DK GreenRoots: Donora
Confined Spaces
The Hotel Fires of 1946 - Part I
The Hotel Fires of 1946 - Part II
Our Lady of the Angels
The Great Molasses Flood
Toy Safety
The Power of One: Frances Oldham Kelsey
Santa Barbara
The Scofield Mine Explosion
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (reposted 24 March 2011)
The Cincinnati Who concert tragedy
The Flexner Report
The Eastland Disaster
El Cortito -- the short hoe
The Buffalo Creek Act of God
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The Memphis Yellow Fever Epidemic - Part I
The Memphis Yellow Fever Epidemic - Part II
The Tylenol Killings
The Hartford Circus Fire
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