By James A. Haught
A quarter-century ago this week, the world got a sickening lesson
in what an unsupervised industry could do to defenseless families.
As the Gazette's investigative reporter in those days, I tried
(unsuccessfully) to solve three puzzles of the Buffalo Creek
The first was why leaders of Pittston's Buffalo Mining Co. didn't
warn Buffalo Creek residents of danger looming from the illegal,
makeshift, unlicensed, unstable chain of "gob pile"
During the rainy night before the rupture, Buffalo Mining superintendent
Daniel "Steve" Dasovich made several worried trips
to the oozing, shaky dam. At daybreak, apprehensive neighbors
said Dasovich told them that workers "had channeled the
water up there, and everything's going to be all right."
After the horror killed 125 Logan Countians and destroyed a 15-mile
valley, Dasovich vanished. I tried to locate him, but couldn't.
He later testified that he woke up sedated in Man Memorial Hospital,
went to Florida for 10 days, then went for back surgery at a
Huntington hospital. He also testified that there had been no
"channeling," which might have triggered the collapse.
Dasovich and his 10-year-old son were killed in a 1977 crash
at a little Logan airport, along with the pilot of their small
plane. The pilot's daughter, Carrie Huff of Charleston, says
her family always wondered if the craft was shot down by one
of the many people who felt great bitterness toward Dasovich.
The second puzzle was why no criminal charges ever were brought
against Buffalo Mining executives for creating crude dams by
dumping coal mine waste into the muck of a creek bed.
Oval Damron, then Logan prosecutor, said failure to get a state
dam license was only a misdemeanor, and the one-year statute
of limitations for prosecution had lapsed. He said Buffalo Mining
couldn't be charged with negligent homicide because "there's
no way to put a corporation in jail."
Circuit Judge Harvey Oakley appointed two special prosecutors,
but their grand jury found no grounds for an indictment.
The third and greatest puzzle - one that even legislative hearings
couldn't solve - was this:
Why did corrupt Gov. Arch Moore accept a $1 million settlement
from Pittston as complete payment for the state government's
loss in the disaster, leaving West Virginia taxpayers stuck for
up to $13 million in unpaid costs?
Personally, I've always figured that something dishonest lurked
behind this odd action. Why else would Moore have done it? A
federal judge ruled, in effect, that the ex-governor lied under
oath about the affair. But no clear explanation ever emerged.
The mystery came to public light when Miles Dean, finance commissioner
in the Rockefeller administration, asked me to come to the Statehouse
and look at some baffling records. From them, this story emerged:
The unlicensed dam had been built by former Logan County Democratic
faction leader A.D. "Buster" Skaggs, who backed Republican
Moore in elections. When Skaggs sold his Buffalo Mining Co. to
Pittston, the dam became Pittston's responsibility.
After the 1972 tragedy, Gov. Moore's emergency director asked
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to perform recovery work at
state expense. The corps repeatedly billed the state $3.7 million,
but Moore kept the invoices confidential and didn't pay them.
The Legislature ordered then-Attorney General Chauncey Browning
to sue Pittston for damage to the state's roads, bridges and
other facilities. For the task, Browning retained Charleston
lawyer Stanley Preiser, who later became Moore's personal defense
attorney. Preiser sued Pittston for $100 million.
Five years later - just three days before his term ended in 1977
- Moore signed a settlement, accepting $1 million from Pittston
and absolving the firm of further liability. Only a week earlier,
the Corps of Engineers had sent him a registered letter saying
it would sue the state for the $3.7 million.
After the Rockefeller administration took office, aides were
jolted to discover the Corps of Engineers' bills. Browning and
Preiser said they hadn't known of the debt while they were suing
Pittston. Flabbergasted legislators held hearings, but couldn't
get a straight answer from Moore as to why he hadn't required
Pittston to pay the corps costs.
A corps lawsuit against the state dragged on for years - with
interest on the debt growing at more than $2,000 a day. Moore
testified in a deposition that he got a corps letter about the
debt - then testified at a trial that he didn't get it. Federal
Judge Norman Ramsey pointed out that one of his sworn statements
By 1987, the state had lost in U.S. District Court, U.S. Circuit
Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. West Virginia was ordered to
pay the $3.7 million plus about $10 million interest.
Attorney General Charlie Brown negotiated with the corps, which
agreed to accept a total of $9.5 million (which included payment
for another small flood cleanup). In 1989, taxpayers coughed
up this reduced amount.
Soon afterward, Moore was convicted of corruption and sent to
federal prison. New Attorney General Roger Tompkins sued the
ex-governor to recover the public's losses caused by his crimes.
Moore finally gave the state $750,000 in 1995 - but this restitution
didn't cover the Buffalo Creek mess, because he never was accused
or convicted in that affair.
By my count, Moore owes the people of West Virginia another $8.5
million to repay the public loss he caused after the state's
worst manmade flood.