Buffalo Creek Disaster
The Buffalo Creek Disaster was one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. In February of 1972 a coal slurry impoundment dam burst. The resulting flood of black waste water washed over 16 small towns along Buffalo Creek. Of the 5,000 residents in the area 125 were killed, 1,121 were injured, and 4,000 were left homeless. A wall of water, estimated to be as high as 30 feet, demolished 546 homes, damaged another 943 and destroyed 1,000 vehicles. The 132 million gallon deluge did an estimated $50 million in property damage. In today’s dollars that would be in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars in damages.
One of the ironies of the disaster is that the same dam had failed a year before but another dam further downstream stopped the water and averted a disaster. The Pittston Coal Company was fined and repaired the dam. The dam was then declared safe by a federal mine inspector four days before it burst the second time. In this case however, the deluge overwhelmed the other smaller dams downstream and created a path of destruction and carnage 15 miles long.
The magnitude of the disaster was compounded by what happened in its aftermath. The state formed a commission to investigate the event. The Governor's Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry was criticized for being made up entirely of members sympathetic to the coal industry or government officials whose departments could have been at fault for not averting the disaster. Requests to have at least one coal miner on the committee were rebuffed. The committee had no subpoena power and could not prosecute anyone for perjury. With no fear of legal consequences several principals refused to testify and others provided conflicting testimony. The commission did blame Pittston for the disaster and provided many recommendations but said it would be up to a grand jury to take their findings and determine if criminal charges should be filed. A grand jury failed to return any indictments against Pittston despite a long history of violating state and federal laws in this instance and others. The state sued Pittston for $100 million but Governor Arch Moore negotiated a $1 million settlement just three days prior to leaving office in 1977. In addition, 625 survivors of the flood sued the Pittston Coal Company for $64 million in damages. They settled in June 1974 for $13.5 million or approximately $13,000 for each individual after legal costs. The area has never fully recovered from the disaster. Several books and films have been made about this tragic and compelling event.
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