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What Was the Buffalo Creek Disaster?

By Steve R.
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The Buffalo Creek disaster occurred in Logan County, West Virginia on 26 February 1972 when water and coal mining refuse burst through a dam owned by the Buffalo Mining Company, a subsidiary of the Pittston Coal Company. The disaster killed 125 people, injured more than 1,000, and left about 4,000 people homeless. The flood caused about $50 million in property damage, destroying or damaging more than 1,400 houses and 1,000 vehicles. The mining company was found negligent of safety practices, and in 1974, survivors and family members affected by the Buffalo Creek disaster were awarded $13.5 million in an out-of-court settlement.

Prior to the dam collapse, rain fell in the southern West Virginia community of Buffalo Creek for two days. The dam and others like it has been built by the mining company to block coal waste from the company's plant, as well as about 130 million gallons (492,000,000 liters) of water. During the weeks prior to the disaster, the mining company was contributing about 1,000 tons (907,184 kilograms) of mining refuse a day to the dam. When the dam burst, the water, coal refuse, and silt destroyed 17 small coal camps. In addition to Buffalo Creek, communities including Saunders, Pardee, Lorado, Craneco, Lundale, Stowe, Crown, and Kistler were affected by the flooding. Bridges and utility lines were destroyed, and roads also suffered significant damage.

Following an investigation, it was determined that Pittston had acted negligently in regard to the safety and well being of area residents. Prior to the incident the company had not turned in dam construction proposals to the Public Service Commission, and inspectors from the U.S. Geological Survey and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources had warned that the dams might be prone to flooding. Officials from the mining company blamed the flooding on the substantial rain that fell prior to the dam breaking. The investigations showed, however, that the flooding was the result of improperly built coal waste dams.

More than 600 flood survivors of the Buffalo Creek disaster sought $64 million in damages from the Pittston Coal Company, but ended up settling for $13.5 million in 1974. Another suit was filed by more than 300 survivors seeking $225 million in damages, and was settled for approximately $5 million in 1974. The state of West Virginia also sought $100 million in damages from the mining company for the Buffalo Creek disaster, but settled for $1 million in 1977.

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