BUFFALO CREEK DISASTER "ACT OF MAN"- Warnings Ignored Over 30 Years Ago, Problems Still Persist


HUNTINGTON, WV - 30 years ago Tuesday (Feb. 26) at Buffalo Creek in Logan County, a coal waste dam failed, releasing over 130 million gallons of coal waste slurry which drowned 125 people and left 4,000 homeless.

In Wales in 1966, a similar coal waste dam catastrophe killed 144 people, including 116 school children. That disaster prompted a study of coal waste dams in the US.

Scientists conducting the study sounded the alarm: It could happen again here.

But nothing substantial ever came of the warnings, and the same tragedy befell the people of Buffalo Creek. After that disaster, some officials recommended that such dams be outlawed.

Survivors of Buffalo Creek still cringe in heavy rainfalls, and 136 coal waste impoundments still pock West Virginia coal country, though today's dams are arguably engineered better than the slate dumps that dammed Buffalo Creek.

"Thirty years after Buffalo Creek, we still really haven't taken the necessary precautions to prevent more coal waste dam catastrophes," said Vivian Stockman, outreach coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "Indeed, in October 2000, there was another sludge disaster along the Kentucky-West Virginia border, but fortunately no human life was lost. The tragedy will be made worse yet if we ignore this latest wake-up call."

In October 2000, 300 million gallons of coal sludge broke through into an underground mine from a 2.2 billion gallon coal waste impoundment at a Massey Energy subsidiary's mountaintop removal operation in Martin County, Kentucky. There were no human fatalities, but in at least 24 miles of streams all aquatic life was annihilated; for at least 75 miles water supplies were disrupted; gardens, septic systems and water wells were ruined; and sludge still remains on river bottoms, in some places up to five feet thick. Low levels of heavy metals and other toxins have been detected in small samples of the sludge.

The Kentucky disaster, the nation's worst-ever blackwater spill, bore unsettling resemblances to Buffalo Creek. In both cases, the responsible coal companies had apparently ignored forewarnings of potentially fatal catastrophe and labeled the apparently avoidable disasters an "act of God."

Citizen outcry after the Martin County disaster prompted Congress to order a National Academy of Sciences committee to study coal waste impoundment risks. The report, written by the most esteemed scientific group to ever study these gigantic waste sites, validates virtually every concern citizens voiced to the committee.

"The report is essentially a warning: It could happen again here, or at any of the nation's over 600 coal waste impoundments," Stockman said. "Meanwhile, larger and larger impoundments have been approved using most of the same suspect, old guidelines.

"Scarily, the report says there's a lot we still don't know about these dams," Stockman added. "We don't know the chemical make-up of coal waste sludge and how the sludge affects water quality around impoundments. We often don't know how much rock separates the bottom of impoundments from underlying mines. Some maps of underground mines have proven inaccurate. We don't always know where natural fractures are in the underlying rock, fractures that could provide pathways for coal waste sludge to escape."

The report recommends that impoundments be subject to more study, new regulations and more inspections. The report says reductions in and alternatives to coal waste slurry production are possible.

"When alternatives do exist, it's crazy that so many of these deep, black lakes still loom in the headwaters of our streams and rivers, hulking over communities like Whitesville," Stockman said. "If meaningful action is finally taken, we won't have to mark another unhappy anniversary."

Congressmen Nick Joe Rahall (D-W. Va.), who has been a champion for citizen concerns on abandoned mine lands, has said he'll ensure that the National Academy of Science's study recommendations are implemented.

In remembrance of the Buffalo Creek disaster, Marshall University's Oral History department, Student Activism for the Environment, Marshall Action for Peaceful Solutions and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition are showing two films, "The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man and "Buffalo Creek Revisited," on February 26 at 7 p.m. in the Student Center's Alumni Lounge.

Both films are by Mimi Pickering of Applashop, a media arts and cultural center located in Whitesburg, Ky.

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