Forty-four years ago, after days of heavy rain, the failure of a coal mine refuse pond dam caused the most destructive flood in the history of West Virginia. The Buffalo Creek Flood on February 26, 1972, claimed the lives of 118 West Virginians and caused over $50 million in damages.
Over the past half century, similar coal waste dam failures have resulted in major disasters. One-hundred forty-four people perished in Wales, UK in 1966 when a coal refuse dam burst and took out a school in its wake. More recently in Kentucky in 2000, and in Tennessee in 2008, slurry spills caused enormous damage.
Below is a summary of the Governor’s Official Report on the Buffalo Creek accident:
Summary of the Official Report from the Governor’s Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry into the Buffalo Creek Flood and Disaster
A mine waste impoundment located on the Middle Fork of the Buffalo Creek watershed in Logan County (WV) failed a minute or so before 8 a.m. on February 26, 1972, causing the sudden release of 17.6 million cubic feet of water (or 132 million gallons) onto the Buffalo Creek Valley floor.
The instantaneous release of the water behind this impoundment immediately began a fall of 253 feet to Buffalo Creek, washing out two additional combination waste banks and impoundments in its path, tore off the corner of a burning mine-refuse bank, before cascading directly into the western slope of Buffalo Creek Valley, one half mile away.
As the blackened water, filled with sludge and refuse from mining operations, turned southwesterly on its subsequent path of death, destruction and devastation, it promptly wiped out the small community of Saunders, located within several hundred yards of the burning bank.
Sixteen more Buffalo Creek Valley communities—Pardee, Lorado, Craneco, Lundale, Stowe, Crites, Latrobe, Robinette, Amherstdale, Bocco, Fanco, Braeholm, Accoville, Crown, and Kistler—were either partially or totally destroyed before the flood wave finally traversed the winding, 17-mile course from the site of the impoundment and the confluence of Buffalo Creek with the Guyandotte River at Man, WV.
The 10-foot to 20-foot high flood wave traveled the valley at an average speed of better than 7 feet per second (or 5 miles per hour), reaching Man at 11 a.m. During those three hours at least 118 lives were lost with an additional seven persons still listed as missing by the West Virginia State Police. Besides the tragic loss of so many lives, an additional 1,000 persons suffered injury.
In addition, 30 business establishments, 1,000 automobiles and trucks, 10 bridges, and power, water and telephone lines were all destroyed, and the county road and the rail lines servicing the valley’s coal mines were severely damaged.
Property damage was estimated in excess of $50 million, while highway damage exceeded $15 million. In was, in the truest sense, the most destructive flood in West Virginia history.* * * * * * * *
“Buffalo Creek Disaster: A Crime by Any Other Name,” Dr. Julia D. Fox, director of Oral History of Appalachia program, Marshall University
“Buffalo Creek Flood and Disaster: Official Report from the Governor’s Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry”