Environmental Justice Case Study: Buffalo Creek Disaster

Logan Country, West Virginia

Table of Contents
Saunders, WV, after the disaster

Source: http://www.wvculture.org/history/buffcreek/buff1.htm

Key Actors
Key Contacts
Additional Information
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Logan County, West Virginia, includes a small area known as Buffalo Creek Hollow. A typical geographic feature for West Virginia, its long, winding hollow stretches for twenty miles with steep ridges on either side. Numerous towns sprang up over the years in this coal rich hollow and the population fluctuated similarly to the rise and fall of mining "booms" and "busts." 1970 saw the most prosperous year for coal since the late 1940s, which prompted new mining companies to seek a presence and buy out already existing companies to seek a presence and buy out already existing companies. However, a flood which occurred in this region one cold winter’s morning in February 1972 changed the lives of all those who lived there (Goldine C. Dleser, 1981).

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The coal mining history of this particular hollow can be traced back to the 1940s. Future problems were unforeseen in 1945 when the Lorado Coal Mining Company opened Mine no. 5 near the top of Buffalo Hollow near Saunders, W. Virginia. The dumping of the sludge from Mine no. 5 was taking place at the mouth of Middle Fork. The Sludge dump functioned much like a dam and was treated in this respect without much thought. The Buffalo Mining Company bought out Lorado in 1964 and began dumping behind the first

"dam" at the Middle Fork stream. The old one proved to be questionable when it failed in 1967. There was no considerable damage, but the threat remained. However, the threat was not taken seriously as the coal company continued to pile waste. In 1970, to add to the danger, when Pittston Coal took over, a third dam was constructed behind the first two. The streams behind were completely blocked by this network of sledge dams (Dennis Deiz, 1992).

During the last week of February 1972, the streams and ponds behind the first dam began to rise steadily. The ponds, also used as settling ponds for the nearby coal processing (water cleansing) plant, had millions of tons of sludgy material on the bottoms which functioned much like quicksand. The water rose as a result of pounding snow and rain while the Pittston Coal Company continued to pump water in from the cleansing plant at a rate of 500,000 gallons per day. It was already nightfall on February 25th when officials began to question the stability of the dams. There was no drainage system installed and no real way to release the pressure. The state had cited the Pittston Company in 1971 after the failure of the fist dam, but no action was taken to follow up and require the installation of emergency overflow systems. As the waters rose, the only action taken was to warn a few families about flooding possibilities. This warning was taken little notice of because it was a common occurrence in the area to be warned of the threat of flooding. But when Dam no. 3 began to show signs of collapsing, Pittston sent for a bulldozer to dig a drainage ditch to relieve some of the building pressure. The company knew that the collapse of the third dam would mean certain and potentially disaster of flooding (Tom Nugent, 1973).

At 7:45 AM, as men worked on the dam, water began to rush down the valley. Only a few residents had been warned at this point. Dozens of lives could have been saved if the people of Buffalo Hollow had been properly warned of the possibility of danger. Pittston Coal neglected to warn The Mining Bureau, the National Guard, the State Police, and even the Logan County Sheriff’s office. At 7:59, the dam completely collapsed. Massive explosion were set off as the rushing water met with the smoldering yellow-suffer coal waste deposits. At 8:01, a huge torrent of rushing water swept through Buffalo Creek and carried all of the burning coal-waste with it. A canyon 45ft. deep in places was the result as more than 120 million gallons of water and 35 million cubic feet of waste materials thrashed down the valley in a wall sometimes 35-45 feet high. By 11:00AM, it was all over (Gerald Stern, 1976).

The disaster killed 123 people, injured 1,000, and left 4000homeless. Houses were demolished and the ones that stood were eventually condemned. Besides the statistic, the flood left countless scars on the survivors and the citizens of West Virginia that cannot be counted or described (Gerald Stern, 1976).

Officials of Pittston Coal claimed the flood was "an act of God", as they argued that there was nothing wrong with the dam except that it couldn’t hold all of the water "God poured into it." Public outrage followed this comment, and the catastrophe was to undergo years of investigation and speculation. Some citizens had been writing the governor, worried about the dam and the flooding danger. Mt. Hope native and inspector for the state of W. Virginia, Jack Spadaro, claims that it was, "a requirement by the state that a permit be granted before the construction of any dam could have ever taken place in Buffalo Hollow at all." No action was taken by the state when he requirement was not fulfilled and it was, therefore, an outright violation. The theory Pittston Coal stood behind is that the water would trickle through the dams at a slow rate and the possibility of pressure build up was never to reach a life threatening point. They were proved wrong (Gerald Stern, 1976)

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Logan County (1989)



456 sq miles

Total Population


Persons per sq mile


Percentage White


Percentage African American


Total Households


Households Median Income


Percentage of Persons Below Poverty Level


Percentage of Children Below Poverty Level


Percentage of Population not Graduated from Highschool


Source: US Census

Compared to the 30 percent of below poverty level and 39.7% of children below poverty level, the state percentages were significantly lower than these. (19.9% and 30% for each). This suggests that Logan County is low income community around the area.

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Local Organization

The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster, consisting of town residents, came together in an effort to get some answers out of officials as to why this manmade catastrophe occurred. The Buffalo Mining-Pittston Company declared that the disaster an "Act of God" in that God put all of the water behind the dam, therefor the company was not responsible for the catastrophe. The Citizens’ Commission, however, strongly disagreed with this reasoning since the dam, built by Pittston, was never designed to hold 130 million gallons of water nor was it built b a qualified engineer who potentially could have made the structure strong and safe to hold the large volume of water. It also noted that Pittston continued to store more water behind the dam even when the water levels were becoming dangerously high. In addition, the Company did not have any kind of devices to keep the water at a safe level, nor did they have an event of a disaster (www.wvgazette.com/static/series/buffalocreek)

The 21 recommendations made by the Citizens’ commission regarding the Buffalo Creek Disaster include (Erikson, 1976):

    1. Prosecuting the Buffalo Mining Pittston Company in front of a grand jury for their negligence
    2. The state suing the company for the damages to roads and brides
    3. Various government branches penalizing the company for pollution and unsafe mining practices.
    4. Residents to pursue their own interests by demanding warning systems, taking legal action, and researching any remaining danger areas in hopes of rectifying these situations before a disaster

Press Conference and Newspaper Editorials-Use of Media

The disaster got the media attention and it served as both for creating awareness among citizens for future prevention of disaster like this and getting support such as volunteer act and momentum in the fighting lawsuit with Pittston Company.

Door to Door Action

Many volunteers devoted hours of their own time organizing on the grassroots level. Using a variety of tactics, The Citizens’ Commission embarked on a mission to educate the public. Volunteers donated time knocking door to door, hosting weekly neighborhood meetings, passing out educational flyers. The Citizens’ Commission utilized the media and local newspapers to bring their struggle to the attention of local communities in Logan County.

Legal Support

In addition, there has been a law suit against the Pittston Coal Company by Stern Gerald, a Washington, D.C. lawyer. Stern and his team of lawyers spent two years on the case before accepting a $13.5 million settlement for their 625 clients in June 1974.

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Key Actors

Pittston Coal Company - they claimed the flood was, "an act of God," as they argued that there was nothing wrong with the dam except that it couldn’t hold all of the water "God poured into it."

Governor Arch Moore - was in office at the time of the disaster and did not rally for a higher settlement. In 1989, he was sent to prison for corruption in connection with the Buffalo Creek Disaster

Gerald Stern - a Washington, D.C. lawyer, collected stories and information for months from the survivors of Buffalo Creek, hand-writing their tales as they filed into his temporary "office" - a tiny storage space at Charlie Cowan's gas station in Amherstdale and wrote book, The Buffalo Creek Disaster: How the Survivors of One of the Worst Disaster in Coal-Mining History Brought Suit Against the Coal Company--And Won

The Citizens’ Commission - consisting of town residents, they came together in an effort to investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster

Charleston Gazette - Online edition of the Charleston Gazette, featuring local news 'for West Virginians. Helped to draw public attention and form grassroots movement among citizens.

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The state settled for one million dollars for the damages. The 17 towns that were destroyed have mostly been rebuilt, with the exception of the hardest hit town once called Saunders. In the 27 years that have passed, residents have seen some improvements in mining operations.

On May 19 in 1996, Federal fire suppression assistance has been authorized to help Colorado battle the uncontrolled Buffalo Creek fire. The authorization makes federal funding available to pay 70 percent of the state’s fire fighting through a formula based on the state’s five years average cost for fighting fires (www.wvgazette.com/static/series/buffalocreek)

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The author of this case study strongly recommend a combination of local and area public protest and legal efforts in the federal courts to protect their rights to live in a safe environment. The local protests will place pressure from the bottom to the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy existing in West Virginia and within the federal government. This pressure will serve to stimulate local support and gather media attention. Citizens of low-income and minority communities now have a tool that they have not had in the past: a federal order that deals with the environmental problem for those with limited resources.

In addition, to prevent a disaster like this, there should be the continuing efforts to educate the local people to provide information in this kind of issue. Thomas N. Bethell who wrote an article about this in Washington Monthly also suggested that the people damaged by the flood should be able to use media more effectively to get more support.

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Key Contacts

US EPA, Chicago, Il;
E-mail address: erbach.david@epamail.epa.gov
Phone: (312) 886-4242

The Charleston Gazette
1001 Virginia St. E.Charleston, WV 25301
Phone: (800) 982-6397 Fax: (304) 348-1233

Miheoun Choi
555 E. Williams St. #5G
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
email: mchoi@umich.edu

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Additional Information


Buffalo Creek: Valley of Death, by Dennis Deitz and Carlene Mowery (South Charleston, WV: Mountain Memory Books, 1992).

The Buffalo Creek Disaster: The Story of the Survivors' Unprecedented Lawsuit, by Gerald M Stern (New York: Random House, 1976).

Death at Buffalo Creek: The 1972 West Virginia Flood Disaster, by Tom Nugent (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1973).

Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood, by Kai T. Erikson (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976).

Prolonged Psychosocial Effects of Disaster: A Study of Buffalo Creek, by Goldine C. Gleser (New York: Academic Press,1981).


"The Pittston Mentality: Manslaughter on Buffalo Creek," by Thomas N. Bethell and Davitt McAteer, Washington Monthly (May 1972).





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