Buffalo Creek Remembered: 35
February 26, 2007
Photos by Vivian Stockman
In one of the Worst disasters ever in West
Virginia -- a preventable disaster. 125 people died, 1100 were injured,
16 communities were obliterated and 4,000 people were left homeless.
It was just before 8 .am. on Feb. 26, 1972 when
dams constructed by Pittston Coal failed, unleashing a deadly
flood of coal waste on Buffalo Creek in Logan.
132 million gallons of water and coal waste thundered down the hollow
from Saunders to Man.
Although it was 35 years ago, survivor Arley
Johnson's memories are vivid and painful. He recounted the horrors of
the day to about 75 people attending a remembrance at the State Capitol
organized by the Sludge Safety Project. People came to remember
and to warn that we are still not safe from the irresponsible, sometimes
criminal practices of the coal industry and its government apologists.
Dennis Sparks, executive director of the West Virginia Council of
Churches, opened our remembrance with a prayer, lest we forget the
agony that was brought on so many people by the disaster. After the
prayer, Johnson delivered a passionate speech, calling people to stand
up to abusive practices of the coal industry and the indifference of
Johnson, 12 at the
time of the disaster, recalled his mother frantically awakening her nine
children, urging them to run up the nearby mountain.
I had time to get a pair of pants on, a blanket and a pair of
boots....As we got out, we could see the water coming over the bank and
heading our way," he remembered. Minutes after the family was safely up
the hillside, the flood water engulfed their Amherst dale home.
out just as a flood would, the water was coming over the bank, then with
every succeeding second it came faster and faster. Then the water just
rolled, you could see it rolling down the valley. A black wall of
took 10 to 15 minutes, and it was total black sludge water, about 130
million gallons of sludge. And it just moved houses. Like matchsticks
they were just being moved. And cars, and we saw trees bend and railroad
tracks wrapped around trees...
the corpses) looked the same. They all looked black. Because it was all
black sludge water. This was a sludge pond. This was water they used to
wash the coal, then they put it in an earthen dam and over the years
just kept building it up and backing it up...They were all black. Hair,
nose, mouth. Some were stripped of their clothing, okay? It was
horrible. It was a horrible thing for me to see."
Charleston Gazette reported:
Johnson, a former delegate, gave the keynote address, calling Buffalo
Creek a great watershed event for himself and for West Virginia.
Five years after Buffalo Creek, lawmakers repeatedly cited the disaster
when they passed the landmark Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act
of 1977 to force federal regulation of strip mining...
Johnson recalled that Pittston Coal officials knew that the dam was
reaching the breaking point, and that government officials all the way
up to then-Gov. Arch Moore had been warned of the danger.
My government failed me, and failed my classmates and failed my
siblings, Johnson said...
Regulators and the coal industry say these dams are much different from
the one that failed at Buffalo Creek. Modern coal dams are designed and
built to detailed engineering specifications, they say. Dams are
regularly inspected, they say, and enforcement is tough.
But in October 2000, the floor fell out of Massey Energys Big Branch
Impoundment in Martin County, Ky. More than 300 million gallons of
28 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill poured into an
adjacent underground mine. From there, the slurry flowed out into two
local streams and into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, along the
West Virginia-Kentucky border.
Lawns were buried up to 7 feet deep, and all of the fish were killed in
two streams. Drinking water supplies were fouled along more than 60
miles of the Big Sandy.
After Martin County, the National Academy of Sciences said in an October
2001 report that tougher regulation of slurry dams was needed. But
neither the federal Office of Surface Mining nor the Mine Safety and
Health Administration has issued new impoundment rules.
And concern over coal slurry disposal continues.
At Mondays event, some Raleigh County residents said they still worry
about a Massey Energy impoundment just upstream from Marsh Fork
Six years before Buffalo Creek, a dam collapsed near the mining village
of Aberfan in South Wales, killing 144 people, including 116 children at
a school below the impoundment.
Also, residents of Mingo County are concerned that a nearby impoundment,
along with the injection of slurry underground touted by the National
Academy as a possible alternative to dams is polluting their drinking
Johnson, who now works for the governors Office of Economic
Opportunity, said he tried to work to address such concerns when he was
in the Legislature.
How is it that we can live in a state that is so wealthy in resources,
in water and natural gas and coal, and our people still be so poor?
For more information, see our website,
Below are photos from the event.
|A group of Mingo County residents at the
Buffalo Creek remembrance.
|A crowd of about 75 people sat in the State
Capitol halls for the memorial and speeches underlining the
continued danger from coal slurry waste.
|All area television stations covered the
Buffalo Creek remembrance on its 35th anniversary.
|Buffalo Creek disaster survivor Arley Johnson
vividly recalled the horror of the day. He urged everyone to action
because coal slurry dams are still not safe and government and the
coal industry are still ignoring the safety of coalfield residents.
|Mingo County resident Donetta Blankenship holds
up samples of her tap water for TV news. She and many of her
neighbors believe area well water has been contaminated by coal
slurry. The contamination of the water in her area is a
slowly-unfolding preventable disaster.