|HUNTINGTON, WV – 30 years ago Tuesday (Feb. 26) at Buffalo Creek in
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
sludge and how the sludge affects water quality around impoundments. We
often don’t know how much rock separates the bottom of impoundments
underlying mines. Some maps of underground mines have proven
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
Congressmen Nick Joe Rahall (D-W. Va.), who has been a champion for
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
Both films are by Mimi Pickering of Applashop, a media arts and cultural
center located in Whitesburg, Ky.