February 27, 2012

A Raging Wall of Black Water

Forty years ago yesterday, a roaring black hell was unleashed in the hills of West Virginia. A coal slurry dam in Buffalo Creek, swollen by days of heavy rains, gave way, unleashing 132 million gallons of black waste water roaring down through the hollow below. In the words of a book about the disaster, it swept away “everything in its path.” 125 people were killed. More than 1100 were injured. Of the 5000 people who lived in the hollow, 4000 were left homeless.

Buffalo Creek was more than just another disaster in the West Virginia coal fields. For one thing, the book I referenced, Everything In Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood, by Kai Erikson, was one of the first case studies dealing with the emergence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For another, the resulting legal action (Pittston Coal, owner of the faulty dam, claimed the disaster was an “act of God”) produced a book by the lead attorney, The Buffalo Creek Disaster (by Jerry Stern) that is used in lots of civil procedure classes across the country as a case study. It’s a horrible way to have an impact, but at least something came out of the disaster.

I was going to write something about the disaster, about how in the 40 years since it happened things have improved somewhat in the coal fields, but lack of concern shown by the coal company for the people who lived around its operation is sadly still in evidence. I should have know that Ken Ward, the crack coal writer for the Charleston Gazette, would have beaten me to it. Go read his thoughts instead.

For more info on Buffalo Creek, see this lengthy series by the Gazette on the 25th anniversary of the disaster.

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