Never forget disaster
A QUARTER-CENTURY ago, 125 Logan countians lost their
lives and thousands others lost their homes when a coal refuse dam collapsed
at the head of Buffalo Creek, sending a juggernaut of raging water down
the 15-mile valley.
It did not have to happen.
The Gazette marked the 25th anniversary of the disaster with an eight-day
series, "The Voices of Buffalo Creek."
The series included first-person accounts from survivors, a journalist
who covered the disaster, a lawyer who successfully sued the Pittston Co.
on behalf of survivors, an inspector for the Mine Safety and Health Administration
Their stories will help keep the memory of Buffalo Creek alive, renewing
the outrage, disbelief, anger and sorrow. Although the memories are painful,
they should not be forgotten.
They must be remembered, so the public never again will tolerate lax government
agencies that fail to inspect hazards and protect people's lives. A scathing
report by the Citizens' Commission to
Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster perhaps said it best:
"Given the enormity of the avoidable destruction of human lives and
values wrought by the man-made Buffalo Creek flood, and the public outcry
for justice it aroused, such performances by officialdom will no longer
be tolerated. They are recognized for what they are - smokescreen tactics.
They have served, at least in this one case, to reinforce the citizens'
determination that such an event shall not ever happen again - anywhere."
Yet there are signs that the lessons learned at such an enormous cost from
Buffalo Creek are starting to fade. Congress is attempting, and succeeding
in some cases, to weaken safeguards passed in the wake of Buffalo Creek.
Coal companies - while making huge profits - are trying to weaken safety
standards so, they say, they can remain "competitive."
Buffalo Creek did not have to happen. Keep repeating that. Four years before
the flood, a Buffalo Creek resident wrote a letter to the governor warning
that the dam at the head of valley was dangerous.
Jack Spadaro, now an inspector with MSHA, said the letter prophetically
warned that if nothing were done, "we're all going to be washed away."
Others warned of the danger, but no one in government took any action to
force the company to fix the dams. Spadaro said if just one person in government
had taken a stand, "then those people would be alive and their families
would be whole."
But Buffalo Creek is not just a story of inept government. It is the story
of corporations putting profit ahead of people. As rains soaked the dam
at the head of Buffalo Creek, it was more important for Pittston to keep
coal production going - and keep sludge pumping into the makeshift impoundment
- than to ensure the safety of people downstream.
The Citizens' Commission recommended that "gob pile" dams - in
which porous mine refuse filters the black water discharged from coal-washing
plants - be outlawed. Instead, the commission said companies should be
forced, as is the case in Europe, to dispose of the refuse in underground
coal mine voids and build filtration plants to clean their discharge.
It wasn't done. Coal owners said it would be too expensive. Today, many
West Virginia firms still operate such dams - although regulations governing
the construction and maintenance of the dams are much more strictly enforced.
But Buffalo Creek is bigger than this one policy question. The disaster
was the result of government inaction and corporate indifference.
That same deadly combination led to the ValuJet crash in Florida last year,
the deadly chemical accident in Bhopal a decade ago, and countless other
tragedies always followed by the mournful refrain: It did not have to happen.
To quote once more from the Citizens'
Commission report: "The people of Buffalo Creek assumed that their
governors and regulatory agencies were dedicated to protecting their welfare.
They were woefully misled. Many have paid with their lives for this misplaced
Only continuous citizen involvement, advocacy and agitation can ensure
that government does its job, and that corporate negligence never again
carries such a high price.