CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of the worst mine dam collapse in the United States.
On the morning of Feb. 26, 1972, a series of three coal refuse dams owned and operated by the Buffalo Mining Co. near Saunders, W.Va., catastrophically failed. The resulting flood wave caused 125 deaths, countless injuries, the loss of more than 500 homes and extensive damage to numerous other properties.
The devastation cast an economic and emotional pall on the area for decades. According to the conclusions of subsequent federal and state investigations, the three dams were not built according to engineering standards or practices then in place. A number of other factors also contributed to the failure.
The conditions at Buffalo Creek were typical of the industry during that era. For the vast majority of sites, engineering analyses and design plans did not exist, and construction and inspection practices were often haphazard. Federal regulations consisted of just one paragraph. The Buffalo Creek disaster is a tragic example of what can go wrong when the hazards these facilities present are not properly addressed.
Just months after the Buffalo Creek disaster, in August 1972, Congress passed the National Dam Inspection Act, mandating that the Army Corps of Engineers develop an inventory of all nonfederal dams and inspect them to assess their condition. The Department of Interior's then-Bureau of Mines was tasked with developing engineering requirements for mining dams.
In 1975, the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was amended to strengthen the requirements for coal impoundments. Those standards, still in effect today, require that a registered professional engineer certify the dam's design and develop detailed plans for the design, construction, maintenance and abandonment of the dam. The Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration must approve the design plans, and inspections by a qualified person and instrumentation monitoring must occur weekly. Any hazardous conditions found must be corrected, and operators must submit an annual report with a registered professional engineer's certification that construction, operation and maintenance of the dam have been in accordance with the approved plans.
This amendment was the single most significant event leading to safer dams in the coal industry.
That same year, the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration, the predecessor of MSHA, published the Engineering and Design Manual for Coal Refuse Disposal Facilities, a publication containing information on critical design elements for coal mine dams which served as an invaluable reference for mine operators, design consultants and government personnel. MSHA updated it in 2009.
In 2007, MSHA published the Coal Mine Impoundment Inspection and Plan Review Handbook, which contains inspection criteria and technical information for the more than 600 coal-industry dams the agency regulates. In 2010, MSHA inspectors, specialists and engineers conducted more than 2,200 inspections of coal mining dams, issuing nearly 280 citations and uncovering practices or circumstances that created or could have led to hazardous conditions.
Impoundments, water retention dams, sediment dams and other waste disposal facilities are important elements of the coal mining and cleaning process. Compared to traditional dams, impoundments are unique because, in addition to holding water, they store the fine-grained solid waste from the coal cleaning process. These materials typically are pumped to the impoundment site and deposited hydraulically behind the structural embankment. Impoundments of today, like other dams, are designed to control runoff and maintain stability.
Since 1981, there has been not one injury or life lost due to the failure of a coal mining dam embankment. However, there have been failures of the natural ground in several reservoir areas that resulted in uncontrolled flooding, most notably the Martin County, Ky., coal impoundment in 2000. Fortunately, these incidents did not result in injury or loss of life.
The years since Buffalo Creek have underscored the importance of vigilance and attention -- by industry and by government. We can't bring back the lives that were lost or change those that were forever ruined, but we can apply the lessons learned to ensure that such devastation never recurs. By continuing to focus on mine safety -- whether it be supporting a mine roof to prevent roof falls, ventilating a coal mining section to prevent black lung and explosions, or properly constructing dams and impoundments to prevent catastrophic failures -- we can help assure that every miner returns home healthy and safe after every shift.
Main is U.S. assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.