Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce
Mount Hope native Jack Spadaro investigated the Buffalo Creek disaster for the state, then helped the Division of Natural Resources clean up coal-waste dams across West Virginia. He now works for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
In 1972, when the Buffalo Creek disaster occurred, Mount Hope native Jack Spadaro was a 23-year-old engineer teaching at West Virginia University's School of Mines. When Gov. Arch Moore appointed an ad hoc commission to investigate the disaster, Spadaro served as its staff engineer, and when the state created a program to regulate coal-waste dam safety, Spadaro ran it. Ever since, as an inspector for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, Spadaro has remembered the lessons of Buffalo Creek. He spoke recently with Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr.
"My job was to gather together all of the engineering data that we could get, interview some of the victims and some of the people who had known about how the dams had come to be built. I spent months doing that.
"We had three or four hearings - one of them in the gymnasium of Man High School. It was a stream of people from the valley down in Buffalo Creek and the surrounding areas who talked about their experiences and the events leading up to it.
"Some of them talked about the loss of their families. Some of them talked about the losses of their neighbors. Some of them talked about the anger that they felt toward the company and the government. Some of them were still kind of stunned, but they ha d enough courage, and they showed great dignity in spite of all this, to get up and say this shouldn't have happened and it should never happen again.
"Those people had seen such terrible things and to hear it in their own voices was really disturbing to me. I'll not forget the faces or voices that testified in that first public hearing in Man, because they were the ones who really knew what it was abo ut.
"As we moved from the coalfields, we had corporate people testify and government people, and the hearings were less meaningful to me. Mostly we found denials of responsibility coming from the corporate side.
"The thing that disgusted me was that people in the valley had been saying for years there was a problem there. They'd been evacuated many times before because of the fear of a dam failure.
"A woman named Pearl Wood rum wrote a letter to the governor, I think it was dated February 1968, four years before the flood. Pearl Woodrum was saying to the governor that there was a dam at the head of Buffalo Creek that was unsafe and that if it faile d, it would kill all the people in the valley. She said, 'If you don't do something, we're all going to be washed away,' and that's what happened. It was a prophecy.
"The head of the Public Service Commission had a copy of her letter and didn't do anything. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Natural Resources had been repeatedly asked to look at it. There was this letter to the governor that was passed on down through the layers of government, and nowhere along the way did anyone take any kind of decisive action.
"There were other people in the valley, I don't remember their names, who complained regularly. They went to a Mr. Oval Damron, who was prosecutor in the county at the time, but he didn't take any action. He knew about the problem, but he didn't take a ny action.
"During the four years between '68 and '72, there had been plenty of attention placed on the potential hazards of the dam collapsing and no one from the government took any decisive action, even though there was some law on the books that should have pro tected those people.
"There was a requirement from the Public Service Commission that a permit had to be granted before the dam could be constructed. They didn't go through the procedures that were required by state law to get the permit for the dam, so that was one violatio n. So it was a good case of the general public concern being completely ignored by the people who were supposed to protect them. There was a clear hazard there, and the state officials ignored the hazard.
"After I finished my work with the commission, which was about six months, I guess, I took a little time off, and then I went to work at the state Division of Natural Resources as chief of the coal-refuse dam control section.
"We got a couple of laws passed, the Dam Control Act and the Coal Refuse Act, and my job was to implement both of those laws.
"I spent the next five years in that work. When we started the program, I think we started with one or two people and we grew to twenty-some people who were all regulating and reviewing the designs for all earth-filled dams and inspecting all the coal-wa ste areas.
"First, we did an aerial survey of hundreds, or maybe thousands, of coal-waste piles. That was a joint effort by, I think, the Corps of Engineers, the Soil Conservation Service, the DNR and the Bureau of Mines. We ranked all the dams based on an aerial o bservation and decided which ones needed looked at on the ground and what the priorities were. Then we sent teams of people in on the ground to do the inspections. These people would then make recommendations on what needed to be done to either stabilize the dam or build a spillway. I think there were about 150 coal-waste piles that were considered high-risk in the state at the time.
"We would write notices or orders to the companies and give them a timetable for fixing their dams. Sometimes, it would take maybe millions of dollars, so we'd put them on a schedule and keep them to it. If they didn't comply, we would come back and writ e a closure order telling them to stop pumping slurry into the reservoir. That would close their preparation plant and that, in turn, would close their mines. So we had a pretty effective tool to use against mining companies.
"I will say that we had pretty good cooperation with some companies, but with others we had to have a strong enforcement tool to make them spend the money that was required to stabilize these structures.
"But we had strong support from Sandy Latimer, who was the head of DNR. He really wanted to do the right thing. So we inspected all of the coal-waste piles on a regular basis, and if we found problems we made sure something got done.
"Overall, it worked. But still, in the 1980s in Eastern Kentucky, there was a woman whose name I think was Nellie Woolum and she was killed in her sleep by the failure of this big gob pile, and I think 17 people lost their homes.
"By that time, the law had been in place for 10 years. The Surface Mining Act had been in place since 1977. The state was supposed to be regulating the construction of these kinds of waste piles. The feds were supposed to be either regulating them direct ly or overseeing them, so that accident should never have happened. That was a case again, where Mrs. Woolum had sued the company and reached some sort of agreement just days or weeks before the coal-waste pile failed and killed her. They had reached som e sort of agreement, but the company hadn't implemented it.
"For the most part, I'd have to say that particularly MSHA instituted a very effective enforcement program and I think the state of West Virginia for a number of years did. I don't know how things are now.
"I get a little concerned, because there is a tendency for bureaucracies to back away from an issue after time goes by. Everything sort of quiets down.
"I think that Buffalo Creek was for me one of the most significant things I ever experienced. It was a turning point for me. It gave me work to do as a very young person and, I don't think I ever lost sight of how important it is.
"You see, I went through stacks and stacks of documents that went back into the '50s, and I think that, if somewhere along the way, there had been somebody within government willing to say, 'Something really has to happen here,' then those people would be alive and their families would be whole."