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This Day in Labor History: February 26, 1972

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On February 26, 1972, a Pittston Coal Company slurry dam collapsed in Logan County, West Virginia. The ensuing flood of coal slurry would kill 125 people and demonstrate once again the horrific contempt the coal industry has for the people of West Virginia.

Coal slurry is basically the toxic leftovers of modern industrial coal production. This was less of an issue in the days of underground mining, but with strip mining and later mountaintop removal, large scale residue became a real problem. The coal is sifted and processed, washed of impurities, and transported to market by rail or boat. The leftover is the slurry. It includes heavy metals including arsenic, mercury, beryllium, manganese, selenium, cadmium, as well as a whole slough of toxic chemicals. This is nasty stuff. The process for cleaning this up was haphazard then and it is now. Basically, coal companies built a dam and dumped it in there mixed with the water that naturally filled up behind the dam.

Pittston was the largest coal company in the United States in the 1970s and its dams had a history of problems. The company began dumping coal waste in the Middle Fork of Buffalo Creek in 1957 and built its first dam to impound the material in 1960. It built two more dams, each about 600 feet upstream, turning the creek into a series of black pools of polluted water. These were basic impoundments made of earth and not sophisticated dams guaranteed to stand up to harsh weather. In 1967, the Department of Interior had warned Pittston the dams (along with 29 others in the state) were unstable and dangerous. Pittston executives did not care. The third dam broke in July 1971, but the second dam held the water and disaster was briefly averted. Pittston also had a long reputation for poor safety practices. It was cited for over 5000 violations at mines in 1971 alone, but only paid $275 of the $1.3 million in fines it was levied. These impoundments were actually banned by the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, but had so far been unenforced.

Late February was very rainy in West Virginia. Residents were nervous about the state of the dams. A mere 4 days before the dam collapsed, a federal mine inspector declared the dam safe. But on the morning of February 26, the third dam caved and this time the second dam did not hold. Neither did the first. A huge wall of polluted water rushed down Buffalo Creek.

When the dam caved, 132 million gallons of slurry entered Buffalo Creek. Downstream lay 16 small towns with a total of 5000 people. 125 would die that day. 1121 were injured 4000 people lost their homes. These little towns were all old coal company towns. The companies had divested any responsibility for the towns before this, but most the people who lived either worked in coal or had family members in the industry. Already these towns were dying as mechanization replaced thousands of jobs in the 1950s and people left, largely for the northern industrial factories.

Pittston Coal called the mine collapse “an act of God” in its legal filings, saying the dam couldn’t hold all the water “God poured into it.” As if it was God who constructed unsafe dams and then filled them with coal sludge. Typically, the state government of West Virginia, wholly owned by the coal industry, “investigated” the dam collapse with a commission made up of wholly pro-coal men. Governor Arch Moore initially banned reporters from entering the area to prevent “irresponsible reporting,” a tactic that reminded many of the old days when basic constitutional rights and freedoms did not apply in coal country. A circuit court grand jury refused to indict Pittston or its executives for any of the many laws it broke with the dam collapse. The special prosecuting attorney, Willard Lorenson of the West Virginia University School of Law, said, “It has been a noble exercise in American justice.”

When the United Mine Workers, now in a period of reform after the corrupt Tony Boyle, a man indifferent to the lives of his own men, was ousted and imprisoned, protested over this sham, the governor ignored them. So the UMWA created the Citizens Commission, which issued a report calling the coal company guilty of the murder of all 125 dead. The state followed by suing Pittston for $100 million, but just before leaving office, Moore settled for a mere $1 million, thus ensuring his place as one of the most pro-industry hacks in the history of American politics.

The survivors sued Pittston but received only a pittance of $13,000 a piece after legal costs, or about $61,000 in 2014 dollars. Moore sought to capitalize on the disaster by promising to do something to help the citizens who lost their homes. He proposed 10 new housing developments for Buffalo Creek, with 750 homes. The total built was 17 homes and 90 apartments, all constructed on top of a coal tailings pile. Moore also attempted to use federal disaster money to ram a superhighway through the valley. Residents were bought out but only a two-lane road was built. Moore promised to build a community center with the funds given back to the community by the lawyers for the plaintiffs from their fees. The community center was never built.

In 1975, the great Appalachian film project Appalshop made a film titled “The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man.” You can watch an 8 minute excerpt here.

Pittston Coal would later be the site of one of the most important strikes of the late 20th century.

In 1990, Arch Moore was sentenced to 5 years in prison for graft after stealing money from the state’s black lung fund. He is the father of Shelley Moore Capito, the likely next senator from West Virginia.

Here is a list of the dead.

This is the 94th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • mike in dc

    The lawsuit was discussed in my civil procedure class in law school. The lawyer for plaintiffs wrote a book about it.

    • Bartleby

      Gerald Stern was their lawyer? Huh. His book was pretty eye-opening back when I was an undergrad.

    • nope

      We read it before law school orientation. I remember it being much better than I expected.

  • Rob in CT

    I’m guessing “Act of God” was also used to try and preserve their insurance claims. Act of God is a term of art in insurance.

    • Rob in CT

      Their being the coal company, of course. I wonder if their CGL carrier(s) ended up paying that $1 million (plus defense costs). Possibly. While the policies would have had pollution exclusions, the issue here wasn’t really pollution (though no doubt the area was polluted), but bodily injury that would’ve been caused even if it was all clean water that came down the valley.

  • DrDick

    Mining and petroleum companies in general have a complete disregard for anything other than maximizing profits at all costs. The also all leave a massive toxic legacy in their wake. Here in the northern Rockies many, if not most, of our rivers and our ground water are contaminated with heavy metals as a result of over a century of mining.

    • We have the same problem in CA, a lot of abandoned mines that lead to such things as sulfuric acid being generated from the contamination going into an natural waterway:

      In a city with many oddities, there’s nothing quite like Oakland’s Leona Creek: It’s bright, foaming and stinking orange.

      Some neighbors describe it as the Love Canal, or the River of Tang. Others keep their pets and kids away. Some are so used to it they think it’s normal.

      But normal it’s not. The creek is awash with sulfuric acid, sometimes at levels comparable to battery acid, leaching from an abandoned pyrite mine near the creek headwaters in the Oakland hills. It flows through Mills College and past O.co Coliseum, and ultimately empties into San Francisco Bay.

      • ChrisS

        Don’t dig around in those Leona Hills near the old Naval hospital either. Prior to WWI, the military used to shell the hillside from downtown Oakland. Up until the 1930s it was the Leona Heights Rifle Range and consisted of a dozen or so different ranges. Then they closed the range, built the naval hospital next to it, and donated the range property to the state (I think) to be used as a park.

  • Kim

    Basic chemistry (see paragraph 2): Arsenic and selenium are not metals. Toxic? Yes (though selenium is also an essential trace element, as is manganese). Metals? No.

    • DrDick

      Speaking as someone living near a EPA remediated Superfund site, they may not be metals, but are routinely referred to as such in these contexts (arsenic was a major factor in this clean up).

    • Actually, according to the Wiki, arsenic is a metalloid element, and selenium, while not a metal, is in the range of elements that are metal or metalloid because of its’ atomic weight.

    • cpinva

      according to Wikipedia, arsenic is classified as a “metalloid”, in which form it has many commercial applications, as a conductor.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic

    • ChrisS

      In environmental consulting, they’re treated as metals and are included in the RCRA 8 metals list.

      • Linnaeus

        Beat me to it. They’re not metals in the strict chemical sense, but for our purposes, we treat them as such.

    • Michael Bloom

      And I never heard of beryllium, atomic number 4, as heavy.

      • DrDick

        On the other hand, the EPA tends to lump those in with “heavy metals” contamination. They did here.

  • walden

    The disaster helped stimulate calls for federal legislation to regulate the environmental effects of coal mining. The federal Surface Mining Act passed in 1974 and again in 1975, but was vetoed both times. Congress tried again after Jimmy Carter’s election, and it was signed into law in 1977. It did a lot of good, but a lot of environmental effects remain partly due to a legacy of weak enforcement, litigation, and inconsistent implementation by both federal and state governments as administrations changed.

  • ChrisS

    I’ve been an environmental consultant for the last decade or so and it kills me to see things like this that the mining industry gets away with. I deal primarily with old munitions (and older coal gasification plants). I spend thousands of dollars making sure that our reports and procedures meet the most minute details and specifications for regulators and clients (can you change that shade of yellow on figure 3-4? It doesn’t print clearly on my printer) for ranges that may or not even exist. I have some that were “identified” because someone saw something that looked like a range on an old aerial photograph. As well spending thousands of dollars on soil and groundwater investigations at ranges that will never ever see life as anything other than a military property (due to potential UXO).

    Meanwhile, the mining industry has giant pools of contaminated sludge that they’re essentially not responsible for. The dichotomy between the two industries is jaw-dropping.

  • heckblazer

    I have a question about union corruption. Specifically, when leadership is corrupt how often does it not involve selling out rank and file to management?

  • Joe B.

    Great post, Erik, as usual.

    The Charleston Gazette has a pretty cool site with reporting from the days after the flood. It’s kind of hidden away on their website, but still fully functioning. Paul Nyden’s account of the flood from his doctoral dissertation is well worth checking out from this site.

    http://www.wvgazette.com/static/series/buffalocreek/index.html

    They’ve got the Citizens’ Commission Report up too, which has some amazing photography of the flood’s impact, I think taken by Earl Dotter. That’s available here:

    http://www.wvgazette.com/static/series/buffalocreek/Commission/commission.html

    • Joe B.

      Just to add, the articles on the Voices of Buffalo Creek site are from the 25th anniversary in 1997, but the PDFs at the bottom are from the days after the flood itself.

    • Thanks!

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