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Buffalo Creek remembered

Another Buffalo Creek?

Ceremony Allows Survivors to Remember, Rally to Prevent Another Buffalo Creek Disaster

BUFFALO CREEK 35TH

Buffalo Creek Remembered: 35 Years Later

February 26, 2007
Photos by Vivian Stockman
Never Again!

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 coal slurry dams constructed by Pittston Coal failed, unleashing a deadly flood of coal waste on Buffalo Creek in Logan.  About 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. 

The Rev. 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 government officials.

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.

"It started 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 water...

"That flood 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...

"Everyone (of 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."

The 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 slurry

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 Elementary School.

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 water.

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? Johnson said.

For more information, see our website,  www.sludgesafety.org/.

Below are photos from the event.

A group of Mingo County residents at the Buffalo Creek remembrance.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Is Marsh Fork Elementary the next disaster waiting to happen?
Is Marsh Fork Elementary the next disaster waiting to happen? Read more about March Folk. Get active--join Sludge Safety Project.

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