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Tr-Ash Talk: Lessons Unlearned from Buffalo Creek Disaster

February 26, 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek disaster—the “most destructive flood in West Virginia history,” which took 125 lives in Logan County, West Virginia, injured 1100, and left 4000 homeless.

The accounts of the manmade tsunami, borne of greed and negligence, are heartbreaking. The close-knit community was destroyed in an instant as children, neighbors, families and pets were swept to their deaths. According to one reporter who witnessed the event 40 years ago, the local high school was turned into a morgue like a scene from Gone with the Wind.

Because of the near total destruction of the community, not even photographs exist of all the victims. Nevertheless, the angelic face of 1-year old Jesse Gunells, who perished in the flood, graced a West Virginia gathering last weekend, speaking a thousand words of warning: that scores of coal ash dams, some entirely unregulated, pose similar deadly threats to communities living under them.

There are strong similarities between the Buffalo Creek disaster and the 2008 coal ash disaster in Harriman, Tennessee. A significant difference, however, is that—unlike in Tennessee—federal officials responded meaningfully to the West Virginia tragedy. The dam break led to the passage of the Surface Mining and Control and Reclamation Act and the addition of new standards in the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that require all coal slurry impoundments to meet stricter engineering standards and undergo frequent inspections.

No regulatory reform whatsoever followed the TVA dam failure. No rules have been established by EPA, and our myopic, industry-funded leaders in the House passed a bill (HR 2273) that contains absolutely no requirements for inspections or specific engineering standards to address the nation’s hundreds of aging coal ash impoundments. The Senate is currently considering an identical bill (S 1751).

Today, hundreds of coal slurry dams still loom over communities in Appalachia. And despite the reforms that followed the Buffalo Creek disaster, mine safety experts identify additional threats still posed by the impoundments, including drinking water contamination and the potential at impoundments built over underground mines. One such disastrous break occurred in 2000 at Massey Energy’s Big Branch Impoundment in Martin County, KY, where more than 300 million gallons of slurry fouled 60 miles of the Big Sandy River. Studies by the Office of Surface Mining and National Academy of Sciences call for additional reform, including the phase-out of slurry impoundments entirely.

Timely reform to prevent another disaster is the only appropriate response to these preventable tragedies. The tide of toxic waste is borne on stacks of money paid by lobbyists to prevent reform. It is this poison that must be swept away in due haste.