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unEARTHED. The Earthjustice Blog

Looking Back at the Coal Tragedy At Buffalo Creek

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26 February 2013, 10:23 AM
Not enough change since historic disaster
The Buffalo Creek disaster destroyed 4,000 homes in 16 towns.  (WV Div. of Culture & History)

Forty-one years ago, today, a dam holding 132 million gallons of toxic liquid coal waste ruptured high up in the mountains of West Virginia, loosing a tsunami-like death wave of coal waste and chemical sludge that destroyed 4,000 homes in 16 towns, injured more than 1,000 people, and killed 125. Seven bodies were never found. This remarkable Charleston Gazette series shares the stories of the people who were affected by this horrific tragedy.

The Buffalo Creek disaster was one of the deadliest floods in American history, but unlike natural floods, it was a man-made disaster caused by corporate negligence, regulatory agency corruption and failure, and an ill-begotten idea of industrial waste disposal. Today, many of the circumstances that led to that disaster still persist, but sludge dams are several times larger. 

After they mine the coal, coal companies still wash the coal with a chemical cocktail before shipping it off to the power plants; but with the advent of mountaintop removal mining, the scale of the mining operations has exponentially increased. Now, many of these impoundments, or dams, hold hundreds of billions of gallons of sludge as opposed to hundreds of millions. And they are still earthen, unlined and susceptible to leaching into groundwater supplies and to failure from heavy rains. The Sludge Safety Project has much more information on the safety threats and problems we face today.

Coal slurry flows from the Martin County mine, threatening homes and the environment. (KY Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet)In 2000, coal slurry flowed from the Martin County mine, threatening homes and the environment.
(KY Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet)

There are hundreds of these coal sludge dams across the country; West Virginia has 110 of them. The coal industry claims they are failproof and safe, but numerous records of failures and countless records of leachings tell us otherwise. In 2000, a sludge dam failed in Martin County, KY, wreaking destruction on the town of Inez, which still is suffering from the toxic fallout from the spill. Mountain Hero Mickey McCoy tells the story of that historic disaster.

Last November, a coal mine worker was killed when the wall of a sludge dam gave out and he and his bulldozer were swept into the dam.

These stories are tragic, but this is a problem we can fix. We can demand safer dams and better enforcement of the laws, and we can demand stronger action to protect workers, downstream communities, and the waters upon which communities rely. Get involved with the Sludge Safety Project and take action now to tell the Obama administration to put a moratorium on faulty coal waste dam construction.

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