Buffalo Creek Coal Mine, Logan County, WV

Written at SFSU in 2017

About 45 years ago, at the U.S.’ coal mining peak, the country had one of its worst mining-related disasters at Buffalo Creek, Logan County, West Virginia [1]. A wave from the waste dam flooded and destroyed the Buffalo Creek community [2]. I will discuss how the energy injustices at this site arose through the resource curse theory.

BuffaloCreekArea-2
Buffalo Creek Hollow Area

Short Video Summary [3]

In 1972, Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia, fell victim to the notorious coal mining industry. Logan County is part of the Appalachian region of the United States. The region is known for its coal mining prosperities and energy production. However, it is infamous for its poverty and oppression.

Appalachian_region_of_United_States
The Appalachian region in white.

In the early 1970’s the coal industry hit its peak since the 1940’s and companies who were trying to make a presence in the industry were buying out already established companies [4]. In February of 1972, after seeing 1970 as the most prosperous year in coal, a flood devastated the area. The disaster resulted in [5]:

  • 123 deceased 
  • 1000 injured
  • 4000 homeless

An Act of God 

The company evaded guilt by blaming the flood on the few inches of rainfall and called it an “act of God [6].”

How?

According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia,  during the time after the flood, an investigation found that the previous owner and Pittson had submitted construction plans for the dam to the PSC, also known as the Public Service Commission, who was responsible for inspecting custodies that blocked streams. For years, nearby residents had been aware of the possible danger that that posed. It was later concluded by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Natural Resources that the dams could be a danger by being susceptible to washouts [7].

Resource Curse

0A possible theory to explain why the  injustice occurred is the “resource curse”  [8]. The idea of “resource curse” can be seen clearly in the Buffalo Creek community through the disparity in their poverty and the corruption of their state government. The effects of a the resource curse can be [9]:

  • weak local government
  • lower education levels
  • impacts on human health 
  • environmental degradation 

According to the University of Michigan, Buffalo Creek was considered a low income community [10].

  • 30% of the adult population
  • 39% of children were below the poverty level.
  • 45.15% of the population did not graduate high school.

Much of the poor socio-economic development was due to the corporation control of the land. The mechanization of coal mines also left many residents with fewer job opportunities while still being at risk of the health and environmental impacts that coal mining leaves behind [11]. Some of the risks [12] are:

  • injuries and illnesses to miners
  • illness and disease to nearby residents
  • water contamination

According to an article written by Lorraine Boissoneault on Smithsonian.com, since the coal industry became the sole source of work, the corporations monopolized daily life by building homes, general stores, schools, churches, and recreational facilities in the mining towns. The corporate control of the towns led to unsanitary living conditions, low and unfair wages, and corrupt politicians to support the corporations rather than their constituents [13].

A more political perspective of the “resource curse” is evident in the case of State Governor, Arch Moore who held the position at the time of the flood.  

Governor Arch Moore

The disaster warnings were ignored and covered up from the public by Gov. Arch Moore  [14] and the Pittston Coal Company.  Gov. Moore’s first response was to enclose the area with National Guard troops to prevent the media from entering the area and set up a commision built up of only industry-friendly people to search for the cause of the flood [15]. The commission found that the flood was not of heavenly cause but of human error, but no charges were made against Pittston Coal Company [16].  Moore was the first West Virginian governor elected for a second term and his prospects for a third were haltered due to the corruption allegations that arose from the flood investigation [17]. Through investigation they found Moore guilty of extortion, obstruction of justice, tax evasion, and mail fraud [18].

Aftermath

  • The remaining community filed suit against the company [19]
    .
  • 1974 – The suit was settled for $13.5 million [20]
    .
  • The state of West Virginia filed a million dollar suit against Pittston to compensate for damage to state property and losses to residents [21]
    .
  •  January 14, 1977 – Governor Moore accepted a $1 million settlement in the suit. [22]
  •  1988 – The state was forced to reimburse $9.5 million to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers  [23] for flood recovery work.
SLAG_HEAP_ABOVE_HOUSING_ON_BUFFALO_CREEK_NEAR_LOGAN,_WEST_VIRGINIA._SLAG_HEAPS_ARE_ONE_OF_THE_ITEMS_WHICH_MAKE_MINING..._-_NARA_-_556467.jpg
Slag heap above housing near Buffalo Creek.

References:

[1] University of Michigan. Environmental Justice Case Study: Buffalo Creek Disaster. Logan County Justice Page. Retrieved from http://umich.edu/~snre492/Jones/buffalo.html

[2] University of Michigan. n.d.

[3] [West Virginia Public Broadcasting]. (2013). 36WV150BuffaloCreek1972CYT [VideoFile]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oLotRavz9w

[4] University of Michigan. n.d.

[5] University of Michigan. n.d.

[6] University of Michigan. n.d.

[7] Adams, Nancy. (2015). Buffalo Creek Flood. Retrieved from https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/697

[8] Ying Wang. The Natural Resource Curse. Retrieved from http://www.neaef.org/public/neaef/files/documents/publications_pdf/young_leaders/5th/Wang%20Ying.pdf.

[9] Partridge, Mark; Belz, Michael; Lobao, Linda. (2013). Natural Resource Curse and Poverty in Appalachian America. Retrieved from https://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/energy/natural-resource-curse-poverty-in-appalachian-america

[10] University of Michigan. n.d.

[11] Rachel Sapire. (2012). Engulfed in a Toxic Cloud: The Effects of Coal Mining On Human Health. Retrieved from http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/hghr/print/spring-2011/coal-mining

[12] Kentucky Environmental Foundation. Health risks associated with Coal mining. retrieved from http://www.kyenvironmentalfoundation.org/coal-mining-health-risks.html

[13] Boissoneault, Lorraine. (2017). The Coal Mining Massacre America Forgot. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/forgotten-matewan-massacre-was-epicenter-20th-century-mine-wars-180963026/

[14] Grimes, Richard S. (2017). Arch Moore. Retrieved from https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/2032

[15] Grimes. (2017)

[16] Grimes. (2017)

[17] Grimes. (2017)

[18] New York Times. (1990). Ex-West Virginia Governor Admits Corruption Schemes. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/13/us/ex-west-virginia-governor-admits-corruption-schemes.html

[19] Adams. (2015)

[20] Adams. (2015)

[21] Adams. (2015)

[22] Adams. (2015)

[23] Adams. (2015)

[24] William Rhee. (2015). Buffalo Creek Timeline. Retrieved from http://www.law.wvu.edu/buffalo-creek-symposium/buffalo-creek-timeline

[25] Wikipedia. (2017) Buffalo Creek Flood. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Creek_flood

[26] Sutphin, Gerald W. (2010). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Retrieved from https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/843

[27] West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Buffalo Creek Timeline, Background. Retrieved from  http://www.wvculture.org/history/buffcreek/frmngtn.html

[28] Keith930. ( 2012). 40 Years Later: The Buffalo Creek Disaster & Its Aftermath. Retrieved from http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/2/7/1062372/-40-Years-Later-The-Buffalo-Creek-Disaster-Its-Aftermath

[29] Associated Press. (2015). Arch Alfred Moore Jr., Former West Virginia Governor, Dies at 91. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-arch-moore-20150109-story.html 

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