Who Killed Buffalo Creek?

 

By TOM PRICE

 

Published in Rolling Stone

Reprinted in Reporting: The Rolling Stone Style

 

 


In late February 1972, a wave of black water and coal mine sludge wiped out whole towns along Buffalo Creek in West Virginia. Senior Editor Joe Eszterhas had an idea about a two-years-after piece on the tragedy.  Joe contacted Tom Price, an old school friend from Ohio University.  Tom was interested in the .Appalachian poverty program and had just quit his job as city editor at the Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, a southeastern town on the fringes of the Appalachian range.  In researching the story, Tom combed the fine print of reports from U. S. Senate hearings, and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.  He studied the lawsuits and visited what was left of Buffalo Creek.  There he found shattered families, shattered individuals, and the history of a disenfranchised mining community whose pleas for protection prior to the flood had been buried for years under layers of bureaucracy, neglect, and corporate self-interest.  This was Price's first major magazine piece. 

 

 


After Years of Crying Wolf

 

     When storms come to this 17-mile-long hollow, the blue sky turns gray and then black clouds roll in over the densely forested mountains -- mountains that stand not much more than a football field apart on either side of Buffalo Creek and the 16 unincorporated mining towns that string out one after the other along the creek from the incorporated City of Man, where the creek meets the Guyandotte River, to Three Forks, where the creek is fed by Lee Fork on the right Middle Fork and Main Fork on the left.

      The clouds sit high on the coal-rich mountains and hurl long, jagged, vicious, bright lightning bolts into the peaks.  On the valley bottom, each bolt of lightning is like a gigantic flashbulb, bouncing brilliant blue light off the houses, stores, trucks and coal tipples.

      It had been like that during the last week in February, 1972.  But Friday the 25th had been one of those beautiful blue Appalachian days -- the green mountains standing above the green grass of the valley and the clear shallow water of Buffalo Creek, a little snow hanging onto the peaks, mud, the creek slightly higher than usual because of the recent rain.

    The people still were worried about the three coal waste dams at the top of the hollow and the 22 million cubic feet of impounded water and sludge.  But the fears dissipated when they saw the clear sky.  Once again it was common to laugh at the nervous residents of Three Forks and Pardee and Lorado and the other upper valley towns who had left their homes to stay with friends or relatives on higher ground just in case a dam failed.

     Then, Friday night, the rain started again.  Upper valley residents began to leave their homes again.  The water crept closer and closer to the top of the biggest dam, Dam 3, high up Middle Fork.  The warnings became more urgent.  Sheriff’s deputies and miners noticed how close the water was to the

top of Dam 3.

     At 8 am Saturday, after years of cries of "wolf" and false alarms and the jokes of the residents who slept while their nervous neighbors made fools of themselves by scrambling up the steep hills . . . Dam 3 failed.

     For tradition's sake, you couldn’t pick a better place for a major disaster than Logan County, West Virginia -- a county with a history of conflict and violence as rich and as dark as its coal seams.

     Storybook hillbilly violence, where the Hatfields and the McCoys really did feud in the late 19th Century.

          Storybook coalfield violence, where in 1921 Bill Blizzard and Mary "Mother" Jones sent off 4000 armed miners to wage war in the Battle of Blair Mountain against Sheriff Don Chafin’s deputies, state police and assorted hired thugs, including a pilot who dropped bombs on the miners from his airplane until federal troops restored "order" and the union army was defeated.

     Robert "Pug" Mitchem is steeped in that tradition.  Son of a miner, nephew of miners, brother of miners and, of course, a miner himself.  Born and reared in Amherstdale in Buffalo Hollow.  Proud debtless owner of a house in which to sire and rear his own family at Braeholm, three communities down the hollow from Amherstdale.  Motor operator for the Amherst Coal Co. Former president of his union local.  Supporter of union rebels Jock Yablonski and Arnold Miller, and rebel West Virginia Congressman Ken Hechler who Mitchem thinks is "as close to an ideal person as a person can be."

     On this Saturday Mabel is up early and she's worried.  It's been raining again.  The creek's been rising again.  People are talking about the dam breaking, about a flood.  Mabel gets the family up, fixes breakfast, and insists that Pug go look at the creek.

     On Saturday, February 26th, 1972, 37-year-old Pug Mitchem is enjoying his morning by sleeping in.  Secure in his job underground, which he doesn't really like but has grown accustomed to.  Secure in his roomy house, where everything is paid for except the air conditioner and where his wife Mabel, 32-year-old Appalachian beauty, is bringing up 14-year-old James Robert and 13-year-old Deborah Ann to have "high moral standards” and to be good “family" people. On Sunday, relatives probably will stop over for the regular weekly gathering and sit down to a big family meal. But Saturday is a morning to lie in bed for a while and relax the muscles and nerves strained from driving coal out of the Amherst Coal Co. mine from seven to three Monday through Friday.

       So Pug walks down to the creek, a little concerned, but remembering all the false alarms and all the times the dam didn’t break.

       The water’s higher than usual. But it has been raining. That's really nothing much to worry about.  It's not going to flood the Mitchem home at that rate.

       Pug looks up the creek, up the hollow.  A pickup comes racing around the bend.  Jesus! Look at that guy drive! The truck slides to a stop on the road by Pug.

       "The dam's broke! The dam's broke!"

       And the truck races off down the hollow, the driver shouting his warning.

       Fear strikes Robert "Pug" Mitchem. He turns and runs for the house.  Shouting.  "The dam's broke! Let's get up on the hill.”

       Not yet.  First Mabel has to warn her brother James Miller.  And the Robinsons.  The Robinsons have been like another set of parents.  Mabel and Deborah Ann pull slacks under their night clothes and put on coats.  Pug is ushering the children to the hill.  Mabel warns the Millers.  And the Robinsons.  But the Robinsons don't want to leave.  They've heard the threat too many times.  Mabel is crying, begging.  "Please come.  Please come." This time she believes it's true.  But the Robinsons say no.

       The Millers believe.  Thirty-five-year-old James, a miner for Zapata Coal Co.; 33-year-old Tilda, a nurse; young James, 15; Johnny, 13; David, 10; Charles, 7, and Callie Brunty, 58, Tilda's mother -- they all will run for the hill to escape the flood.  But James Brunty, 82, Callie's husband, is bedridden.  He's been terribly ill.  Moving him might be worse than taking a chance on the flood.  And how to move him, on his heavy bed, out into the cold wet February weather?  James Miller sends everyone to the hill; he'll stay and try to move Mr. Brunty if the water threatens the house.

       If the water gets high . . . It's 8:15 . . . 8:30 . ..  the water is on the way.

 

 

An Act of God

 

       Three Forks is a small coal town, or "camp," as those communities have been called ever since the coal companies first built the simple houses, and leased them to their employees.  Now the residents own the houses; many have invested in new siding, added rooms, kept carefully tended lawns.

       Three Forks is 20 houses and the Free Will Baptist Church.  Above Three Forks is a massive black coal waste bank -- a burning "gob" pile 200 feet high and 1000 feet long that smolders along one bank of Middle Fork.  There, the narrow stream carries water that has filtered through a 20-foot-high dam, Dam 1, that stretches across the Middle Fork hollow.  "Constructed" of coal waste dumped into the stream bed and across the hollow, the dam impounds a lake of water that has filtered through 20-foot-high Dam 2. "Constructed" of coal waste dumped into the stream bed and across the hollow about 600 feet above Dam 1, Dam 2 impounds a lake of water that has filtered through Dam 3. "Constructed" of coal waste dumped into the stream bed and across the hollow about 600 feet above Dam 2, Dam 3, which is 45 to 60 feet high, impounds a third lake.

       The dams "clean" the 702,000 gallons of black water the Pittston Co. discharges each day from its Buffalo Mining coal preparation plant, where coal from five deep mines, one strip mine and two auger mines is washed.

       The black water is pumped into the lake above Dam 3, and as the water moves toward the dam the heaviest particles drop out.  The water is being cleaned.  By the time it reaches the dam, the water contains primarily fine particles which form a goop along the walls of the dam and make the dam bigger.  Coal wastes are dumped by trucks along the top of the dam, and are spread by bulldozers.

       The water filters through each dam and emerges clear in Middle Fork just above Buffalo Creek.  The process is a common cheap antipollution measure.  According to a Corps of Engineers Report, it is insane:

       “The basic concept of Dam 3 was not acceptable from an engineering standpoint . . . a structure the successful operation of which depended on uncontrolled seepage; unless some happy accident occurred whereby Mother Nature took care of this fundamental error of conception, the dam was doomed to failure from the time the first load of refuse was dumped.”

       The filtration through the dam weakened the dam. The February rain -- 3.7 inches in 72 hours, a rainfall expected every two years -- added to the pressure behind the dam. According to the Corps, any half-competent inspector should have known that the dam was in danger of failure, any half-competent engineer should not have built the dam in the first place.

       Steve Dasovich, Buffalo Mining Co. vice president, looked at the dam Saturday morning.  He didn't see anything to worry about.  Two sheriff’s deputies assigned to warn Buffalo Hollow residents of potential flooding talked to Steve Dasovich Saturday morning and were persuaded that there was no need for a systematic evacuation of the valley.  Miners and other residents were worried, and passed their worries along, but too many people didn't heed and too many were not warned.

       At 8 am, Dam 3, supersaturated with water, its lake nearing the top of the dam, melted, its impounded water and sludge pouring into the lake below and demolishing Dam 2, picking up more water and sludge to pour into the lake below and demolish Dam 1, picking up more water and sludge to smash into the burning gob pile and -- to explode, like water poured onto a campfire, steam and water and black coal waste thrown into the air, turning the air wet and black, 150 to 200 million gallons of water and thousands of cubic feet of coal refuse now racing out of Middle Fork Hollow, with a black head 30 feet high, roaring across Buffalo Hollow and bouncing off the opposite mountain and toward Three Forks.

       Ossie Adkins, 70-year-old retired miner, is standing on the porch of his house right beside the gob pile and he watches as the black water pours from the gob pile just below his house and races toward Three Forks.  The black wave turns a Buffalo Mining Co. garage into splinters and hurls heavy equipment, like children's toys, into the air.  It picks up the Free Will Baptist Church, balancing it like a white figurehead on the flat bow of a massive black warship.

       And then -- with people screaming and running and scrambling up the hillside -- the black wave smothers the town of Three Forks, chews it up, and moves on.

       In 20 minutes, the tail of the wave passes through Three Forks.  And Ossie Adkins sees an empty valley, black with sludge, the church gone, the houses gone, the cars and trucks gone, the people gone, the topsoil gone.

       The wave has just begun its three hours of work.

       Gathering more rubble, the Wave destroys the town of Pardee, and then the town of Lorado.  Bouncing back and forth off the mountains that flank the valley, it hits every town. The enormity of its destruction varies according to its angle of entry or according to the number of houses built on the valley bottom and on the hillsides.

       Craneco, then Lundale, then Stowe, then Crites, then Latrobe, then Robinette, then Amherstdale, then Becco, then Franco.  Then the wave lunges toward Braeholm -- Pug Mitchem and the Millers.

       Inside his house James Miller is struggling to help his invalid father-in-law.  Two men who are coming to help him are in the front yard.

       Suddenly, the creek is turning black, rising faster than anyone had expected.  Then, up the hollow, turning the bend . . . the black wave is now carrying entire houses, autos, trucks, trees, power poles and other splintered debris, and people. 

       The rising water in front of the black wave enters the Millers' front yard.  The would-be helpers are knocked down by its powerful current.  Soaked, they stumble back to their feet and run and stumble and slosh toward the hill.

       Inside, James Miller hasn't seen the wave.  It hits the house. The house shakes, rattles, begins to come apart.  James Miller runs to the front porch to look.  My God!  What can be happening? The house is shaking, breaking up.  He climbs for the roof. Another house is coming, carried like a boat on the flood. James Miller is half-on, half-off the roof. The houses collide. He falls into the black water. . . .

 

       It is sometime after 8 am at House 267, Braeholm, and Willard and Grace Adkins have just been warned by a neighbor that the dam has broken.

       Willard, 73, retired coal miner, and Grace, 60, get in their 1969 Ford pickup truck and drive down the valley toward Braeholm Hill -- high ground and safety. But they have been warned too late and the rising water hits their truck, gets under the hood, and the truck stalls.

       Now comes that black wave. It lifts the truck, carries it down the valley. Other vehicles, houses and rubble bounce in the water. Willard and Grace Adkins are sure they are going to die.  The truck rams sideways into the Mitchem house. The wave is carrying off the house and the truck together.  The Adkins are praying.  A power pole falls into the water and ignites sparks.  Oh, God, are You going to electrocute us?

          Coming down the hollow . . . three houses . . . side by side by side . . . about to smash the Adkins' truck between them and the Mitchems' house.  But one house moves to the right.  Another moves to the left.  The middle house, though, is coming broadside at the truck.  Then it starts to fall apart, turns to splinters and sinks in front of the truck.  They are going to live.

       Willard puts his arm around Grace, holds her close.  They've survived so far, but now the water is rising.  The windows are closed and the Adkins sit inside and watch the black water creep higher.  Mrs. Adkins prays:

       "Lord, You've divided the waters before.  You can save us if it's Your Holy Will."

       But the water continues to rise.  It starts to seep in the edges of the windows.  The Mitchems, standing on the hill and out of the water, see their house destroyed and watch helplessly as the water covers the truck.  They turn away.

      

       James Miller is in the black water.  He knows his father-in-law must be drowning, and he is certain that soon he, too, must drown. A power pole falls.  A power line leaps about in the water and grabs James Miller's leg.  The electricity surges through his body, burning his leg.  He fights with the wire, tries to throw it off, to get untangled from it.  But the shock is great pain. He flips about in the water.  And suddenly . . . he's free.  But free as well from his house, knowing his father-in-law must be drowning.

       Then . . . ahead . . . a tree.  If he can grab a limb of the tree, hang on, maybe he can stay alive till the water goes down.

       Pug Mitchem is standing on the hill, watching everything he owns and knows and loves destroyed in the black water.  Beside him, on the hill, in various stages of hysteria, sobbing: his wife, Mabel; his children, James Robert and Deborah Ann; his wife's sister-in-law, Tilda; his wife's sister-in-law's mother, Callie; his wife's sister-in-law's children, James, Johnny, David, Charles.

       My God, what the hell am I gonna do?  Everything I own is gone.  What will I do with all these people, suddenly my responsibility?  How can I take care of them?  How can any of us live with this?

       He tells them that James Miller and James Brunty are dead.  Mabel screams, "Oh, God, no! Oh, God, no!" Fourteen-year-old James Robert puts his arms around her to comfort her.

       And Pug Mitchem stands on the hill and sees what little is left of Braeholm West Virginia.  He sees the Adkins' truck, still lodged against the remains of the Mitchems' house, and he walks toward it to see what's left of Willard and Grace Adkins.  He opens the door, and . . . Willard and Grace are alive! The black water had covered the track, but had not filled it.  Willard and Grace had breathed the stale air of the closed track and held each other and prayed.  And now Pug is helping them out of the truck and through the sludge and debris and up the hill.

       And now he must search for the remains of James Miller and James Brunty.  Knowing he will find them -- if he finds them at all -- black with the sludge, filled with water, swollen, probably twisted and bent and broken, perhaps mutilated by sharp debris.

                   And then he sees a tree . . . and a body in the tree.  James Miller. He looks bruised, burned, his clothes torn, his body black from the water.  He looks  . . . alive.  James Miller has held onto the tree, and the water has gone down, and he is alive. With Pug for support, he stumbles across the valley toward the hill, toward his family, who can rejoice that he is alive even though everything they own except what they are wearing is gone. Even the Robinsons, who failed to heed Mabel’s warning, are alive. They escaped in time. But James Brunty, the bed-ridden invalid, who had no chance when the wave came, is dead.

       The wave left the valley almost empty where Braeholm had stood and crashed through Accoville and through Crown and through Kistler and into the Guyandotte River at Man. Now, after the destruction, it would turn the Guyandotte black and give the Guyandotte its plunder as the Guyandotte made its way through the West Virginia mountain valleys toward Huntington and the Ohio River. And seven bodies never would be found, and people would wonder how far downstream the water had carried the bodies and where the bodies were rotting.

 

 

It Could Happen Again

 

       How do you rebuild a 17-mile-long valley?  How do you rebuild 507 homes?  How do you repair 273 homes that were "seriously" damaged?  How do you repair 663 homes that suffered "minor" damage?  How do you rebuild a road? And railroad tracks?  And bridges?  And mining facilities?  What do you do about topsoil washed away to bedrock?  About trees and flowers and wildlife?  About snakes suddenly washed into once-populated sections of the valley?  About dogs, suddenly without masters, wandering lost and hungry.  About 1000 automobiles and trucks?  About water systems and power systems and telephone lines?  About churches and schools and recreation areas?  About 125 men, women and children killed -- drowned or crushed or mutilated to death?  About 4000 people suddenly without livable homes -- 4000 of the 5000 who lived in the valley, almost 10% of Logan County, West Virginia?

          Government officials know what to do first.  Call in the National Guard and the US Army Corps of Engineers with helicopters and trucks and jeeps and bulldozers. Bulldoze rubble into piles, carry on instant condemnation proceedings and bulldoze damaged homes into piles.  Bum the piles.  Cut through a temporary road and throw up temporary bridges or fords.  Turn schools into refugee centers and morgues.  Call in the Red Cross with emergency food and clothing. Expect people, as they always do, in an emergency, to become their brothers' keepers, to donate food and money and clothing, to take in the homeless.

       The state government slaps a quarantine on the valley and stations state police at access points to keep out people without permits.  The government orders that the homeless not move back up the valley and rebuild on their own, or repair their damaged homes on their own, or buy and relocate mobile homes on their own land.

       The US Department of Housing and Urban Development sends in 600 trailers and sets them up in flat trailer parks cleared by the Corps of Engineers.  HUD tells people they can live rent-free in the trailers for a year and after that can rent or buy the government-owned trailers. The state and federal governments promise immediate emergency relief and longer-term aid in rebuilding Buffalo Hollow communities and the survivors' lives. The government officials also promise to investigate, to determine if there's been corporate negligence, perhaps criminal guilt.  To punish the criminals.  To prevent similar disasters in the future.

       The press arrives en masse.  First the local reporters.  Then the wire services and the networks and the big newspapers.  Later magazine writers.

       And time passes.  And the press leaves.  And the government investigations are concluded.  And the Corps and the National Guard go back to routine duties or onto other disaster sites.

       As you start to drive up Buffalo Hollow, you see nothing unusual.  Houses, many typical modern suburban homes, older frame houses, and dilapidated, unpainted shacks. Side by side. As they are throughout the Appalachian hill country.

       There's a laundromat in Man with special washers for “mine clothes and greasy clothes." In the summer and early fall, the mountains are lush green.  The houses have neat grassy yards, trees, flowers.  But, as you go up the hollow, you notice that the green mountains are broken by black coal waste dumps. Sometimes low along the road. Sometimes starting high on the mountain and dripping black all the way down to the valley. Sometimes smoking.

       Braeholm: A few trailers, a couple of houses, a railroad crossing, an empty flat field.

       Orange smoke billows from a coal processing plant. Twisted six-foot pipe, once probably a conduit under a bridge, is rusting beside the roadway. An occasional foundation . A brick chimney. Cement steps leading  nowhere.

       HUD trailer courts. Housing hundreds of Buffalo Valley residents still homeless in the second year after the flood. New trailers here and there, some impressive double-wide mobile homes, belonging to those who said to hell with, government and returned to their own land on their own.  Fourteen houses in a government-assisted "model subdivision." Other houses built privately after special dispensation was obtained to waive the quarantine.

       The farther you go up the valley, the less activity you see.  Near the top, as you approach Three Forks and the dam-sites, you come to an empty clearing.

       The valley floor is flat and deserted, like a large park.  A No Trespassing sign is stuck in the middle of a flat space beside the road, some property-owner's desperate notice that this is . . . was . . . his home.

       At the top of the valley, the coal company has seeded the bottom end of the gob pile that was black and burning when the dams broke.  Now, grass tries to grow on the pile's hostile surface.  A culvert, installed to let now-undammed Middle Fork flow freely into Buffalo Creek, sits high in the hillside, and the clear water cascades to the valley floor.

       Behind the coal company's No Trespassing signs, the scene remains black and ugly.  The gob pile stretching back along the fork, the remains of the dams almost flat for hundreds of yards.  Mostly dry, with some gooey spots.  In dirty black contrast to the green mountains on either side.

       But the story of Buffalo Hollow since the flood is more than landscape.  If 4000 people were made homeless on the morning of February 26th, 1972, there are 4000 stories of Buffalo Hollow since the flood.

 

       "They didn't intend to kill nobody.  But if you run over a man, that’s manslaughter, whether or not you intend to run over him.  The people responsible for this ought to get manslaughter.  Too many people got killed and nothin’s been done."

                               Robert Bowens, disabled miner

 

                   "It's just plain mass murder, that's all it was."

                   Bill Morris, retired mine

 

                   "An act of God."

                       Pittston Co. executive vice president

 

       "Coal, as usual, will come out of this as good as gold because God, after all, can't be reached for comment."

                   A West Virginia journalist

 

       West Virginia Congressman Ken Hechler describes attempting to establish blame as "like nailing currant jelly to the wall -- very frustrating." But there are plenty of potential culprits, although it's unlikely that any will face the punishment that the average Buffalo Hollow resident would for running a red light.

       Some items:

       -- On October 21st, 1966, in Aberfam, Wales, a slate bank near a coal mine turned to mush and oozed down a hillside, crushing a schoolhouse and killing 116 children and five teachers.  Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall quickly ordered a survey of America's coalfields to determine if such a disaster were possible here.  On March 6th, 1967, Udall wrote a three-page letter to West Virginia Governor Hulett Smith, all West Virginia congressmen (including Hechler and current Governor Arch A. Moore), and many local officials, including three Logan County commissioners.  The letter warned that 30 waste piles in West Virginia created some form of hazard, and specifically named the four that were most dangerous.  Udall wrote that "the Bureau [of Mines] will. continue to observe mine dumps for possible critical conditions and will receive counsel from the Geological Survey where unstable conditions that might endanger life are recognized.” The letter did not specifically identify Dam 1 on Middle Fork, which Geological Survey geologist William Davies had said was “stable” but “could be overtopped and breached. “Flood and debris,” Davies said in his report, “would damage church and two or three houses downstream, cover road, and wash our railroad.

       -- In the summer of 1967, a slide from a gob pile in Proctor Hollow, a Buffalo Hollow offshoot, filled several basements with med and swept away several autos. Hechler, one of the few coalfield politicians willing to criticize the industry launched a protest which included a well-publicized visit to the site.  The Charleston Gazette reported on July 7th: "Towering piles of mine refuse scattered throughout Logan County were cited Thursday as serious threats to the safety of county residents . . . [Hechler] said the streams in Logan County need to be dredged and 'people's homes protected before we have the kind of catastrophe which struck Wales with a heavy loss of human life.'"

       -- On February 5th, 1968, Mrs. Pearl Woodrum, of Three Forks, wrote a letter to Governor Smith: "We are all afraid we will be washed away and drowned. They just keep dumping slate and slush in the water and making it more dangerous every day.  Please let me hear from you at once and please for God's sake have the dump and water destroyed.  Our lives are in danger."

       -- In 1969, Buffalo Mining Co., finding its two coal waste dams in Middle Fork inadequate for the magnitude of its mining operations, began dumping coal wastes into the hollow about 600 feet upstream from Dam 2, to begin Dam 3.

       -- The West Virginia state code forbids construction of a dam the size of those on Buffalo Creek unless both the design and construction of the dam "shall have been declared to be safe by an order entered by the Public Service Commission after full investigation."

       -- The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act provides that: "Refuse piles shall not be constructed so as to impede drainage or to impound water . . . Refuse piles shall be constructed in such a manner so as to prevent accidental sliding and shifting of materials. . . . If failure of a water or silt retaining dam will create a hazard it shall be of substantial construction and shall be inspected at least once each week."

       -- From 1925 until shortly after the flood, the West Virginia Public Service Commission had received 260 dam-building applications and turned down only two or three.  Commission officials explained that they simply review the dam-builders' plans, that they don't bother to check to see that the plans have been followed in construction, that they don't inspect the safety of functioning dams.  They also explained that they never prosecuted a dam-builder for failure to seek a permit.

       -- As of March 31st, 1972, the US Bureau of Mines had never issued a citation for an improperly constructed dam.

       -- The Pittston Co. has no records of regular inspections of its Middle Fork dams.  It never applied for State Public Service Commission dam-building permits.  On February 25th, 1972, the day before the flood, the Pittston Co. submitted maps of its operations to the West Virginia State Department of Mines, maps which did not show the Middle Fork dams.

       -- After the flood, Nicholas T. Camicia, president of the Pittston Co., told a Senate labor subcommittee that "it has been, and is, the policy and commitment of our coal group to comply with the federal and state laws relative to mine health and safety."

       -- Between April, 1970, and May, 1972, the Pittston Co. was cited by the US Bureau of Mines for 5358 mine health and safety violations.  Penalties with the citations totaled $1,152,725.  Pittston's Buffalo Mining operations had 330 citations in that period, carrying with them $57,180 in penalty.

       -- On July 12th, 1973, Camicia explained in a letter to Subcommittee Chairman Harrison Williams that "based upon the figures available to us the record of our coal subsidiaries in meeting these standards certainly has not been out of line with the performance of the industry as a whole."

       -- All $1,152,725 in penalties against Pittston have gone unpaid.

       -- Interior Secretary Rogers C. B. Morton, previously through the Interior Department's Bureau of Mines and now through the new Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration, is responsible for enforcement of mine health and safety laws and for collection of penalties assessed for law violations.  His brother Thruston, former US senator from Kentucky, is on the Pittston Co. board of directors.

          -- After various investigating bodies, including one appointed by the governor and one reporting to the Senate subcommittee, concluded that the disaster would not have happened had the state and federal governments and Pittston done what, by law, they were supposed to do, a special grand jury was convened. The jury met for three days in November, 1972, heard some 30 witnesses called by the dean of the West Virginia University Law School and by a former county prosecutor, and returned no indictments.

       Establishing blame wouldn't bring back to life any of the 125 persons killed in the Buffalo Creek flood or physically restore the hollow to its pre-flood status. But criminal prosecution of mine company officials might serve as a deterrent to future criminal negligence by Pittston and other mining firms. There's also a psychological need fulfilled when blame is established and the guilty punished.  And the residents of Buffalo Hollow have many psychological needs.

       There are survivors who live in deathly fear of rain and loud noises, adults who cringe at the sound of thunder, children who fear drowning in bathtubs and who want to hide when it rains. There are those who never want to go back up the hollow again, and those who die a little every day they are forced to live in HUD trailer camps and are unable to return to their homesites.  Psychologists talk about "survivor syndrome" and "death guilt" and Buffalo Hollow survivors who had to be shipped off to mental institutions for intensive care.  Tranquilizers and periodic hospitalization for "nerves" are common.

       The Buffalo flood was everything at once -- death, injury, destruction of personal belongings and entire communities. Survivors -- homeless -- still live in trailer camps, away from friends and relatives, away from communities in which many were born, grew up and planned to die.  And there are those who, five days a week, travel from their trailers, past the empty fields which once were their hometowns, past the spots where friends and relatives died, past horrible memories of personal experiences on February 26th, 1972, all the way to the top of the hollow, past the gob pile and the remains of the dams, to work in the Pittston mines, dependent for survival on the agent of destruction of their pre-flood way of life.

       And many worry about other waste banks in the coalfields and wonder if the same thing could happen again.

       After the flood, the Corps of Engineers conducted a quick survey of a few waste dams in southern West Virginia and reported: "Lack of adequate design and construction measures, as well as the poor planning of operations, make all the dams presently in use a serious hazard, one of even potentially catastrophic proportions, to life and property downstream.  The dams are, in general, only barely stable under present conditions; the study indicates that all will fail under reasonably high-pool conditions."

       Later, a more thorough Corps study of 123 waste piles in West Virginia classed 16 as "severe hazards," 92 as "potential hazards," and 15 as being of "little or no apparent hazard." And the Corps was quick to qualify its findings, warning that the report did not represent detailed engineering studies, but rather "on-site visual surface inspection entirely, with no subsurface exploration, sampling or testing and no laboratory analysis.” "In general," according to the report, "almost all of the sites inspected posed some form of hazard by the mere fact that water was either impounded or capable of being impounded behind a structure which was not properly designed, constructed and maintained." And, the Corps cautioned, some potentially hazardous sites may not have been located for study.

       The follow-up of the Corps study, one of several done throughout the coalfields, was the responsibility of the US Bureau of Mines until the Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration was created this summer.

       The Bureau, which previous to the flood had never issued an unsafe dam citation, later cited almost every coal wastebank impoundment in West Virginia, according to one official responsible for inspections.  About 170 mines were on notice in southern West Virginia alone -- 30 to 35 in Mingo and Logan Counties -- as MESA came into being, the Bureau official reported. He said 10 to 15 operations had been shut down for periods of time because of waste-bank violations. Banks considered “serious hazards” were to receive daily inspections by company personnel, weekly inspections by bureau staff, and periodic visits by consulting engineers.

       But the process is time-consuming and expensive, both for the mine companies and for the government, There are an estimated 5000 working mines and 5000 abandoned mines in the Appalachian coalfields, and abandoned waste banks can be just as hazardous as active ones. Business Week has reported that “sophisticated water recycling systems which might also control waste water cost from $500,000 to $1 million." Cost estimates on strengthening individual impoundments have been set at a quarter-million dollars and more.

       William A. Wahler, consulting engineer whose firm has worked for the Interior Department in West Virginia, is aware of the costs.  Coal Patrol magazine quoted him as saying, "You must determine what loss of life is an acceptable risk."

       A federal inspector discussed one "serious hazard" site which remained in use despite the need for improvements, which he said were being worked on.  The mine was losing $100,000 a month, he said, and was facing bankruptcy.  If the operation went bankrupt, he asked, what would the government do?  In many states, strip-mine operators are required to post bonds to guarantee reclamation financing should a company skip out or go bankrupt. There is no similar procedure for financing the elimination of waste-bank hazards. Inspectors, therefore, pay attention to company pleas of financial hardship, especially, ironically, at the most-difficult-to-improve impoundments.

       Last summer Gene McCoy, supervising geologist at the Corps of Engineers' Huntington District and chairman of the board of review for the Corps' West Virginia waste-bank study, said, "I don't think there's anybody who could say you couldn't have another Buffalo Creek.  I certainly wouldn't."

       Last month, at 5 am, November 28th, about 60 families were evacuated from Carbondale, West Virginia, because the Allied Chemical Co. feared possible failure of a waste-bank dam at its Carbondale mine.  Company officials contacted union officers, evacuated the town, and closed the mine which had an entrance below the dam.

       According to United Mine Workers safety consultant Davitt McAteer, the dam had no spillway.  A drain pipe near the dam’s base had become clogged with coal waste, and water was rising dangerously close to the top of the dam as heavy winter rain soaked the Appalachian Mountains.

         Deciding that the government was not doing its job and worried by a weather forecast of heavier than normal precipitation through the end of December, the union sent ten international safety officers into the field to conduct spot checks of waste banks in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.

       But, McAteer pointed out, the union men are not dam experts.  And he reported that some coal companies -- notably Amherst and Island Creek, both of which own mines in Buffalo Hollow -- turned union inspectors away.

       In Buffalo Hollow, changes come more slowly than government officials' disaster-spawned statements once indicated.

       Although the C&O Railroad and the dozen coal mine operations of the valley were back to normal shortly after the flood, HUD's temporary trailer camps still house more than 200 families. HUD has extended, and extended again, its free-rent policies in the camp. And of survivors who have returned to private homes, more have made their new homes in trailers than in houses.

       State planners, proclaiming intentions to have the valley "rebuilt more beautiful than before with a better life for everyone," sat down with a map shortly after the flood and drew a line from Man to Route 85 over the mountain east of the hollow.  The line, a new road, State Route 16, will connect Man and Buffalo Hollow with Beckley, a major southern West Virginia city.  It will promote "economic development." It also will destroy an estimated 80 homes that survived the flood and will remove about 200 parcels of land from private hands.  It will not interfere with coal mine operations.

       In August, 1972, the Corps of Engineers contracted with an engineering-architectural-planning firm for planning and engineering work on redevelopment of the valley.  But complete funding did not come through for the engineers, and by November the project was at a standstill.  In January, 1973, a Buffalo Creek Valley public-service district -- formed to provide water and sewer systems in the hollow with $7 million in federal, state and local funds -- contracted with the same firm, and planning work began on that phase of valley redevelopment. At the same time, the State Highway Department was moving along with its Route 16 plans. West Virginia’s Office of Federal-State Relations is attempting to coordinate all government efforts at valley redevelopment.

       Predictions are that highway construction will be completed in 1976 or 1977 and that sewer and water system construction will be completed by the end of 1974.  There is no official guarantee of when sufficient housing will be completed.  The highway department is searching for sites for "last-resort housing" for those displaced by the highway. The department has been negotiating with property owners for purchase of land lying in the highway right-of-way.  But relocation benefits may have to be repaid out of any settlements survivors make with Pittston and many property owners fear they will be paid less for the highway-appropriated land than they will have to pay for comparable land if they want to stay in the valley.

       There is a strong sense of roots, of community, in the Appalachian Mountains, and some of the people of Buffalo Hollow demonstrated that after the flood by tenaciously placing new trailers on their old homesites or repairing their old homes or rebuilding from scratch -- and daring the state to enforce its quarantine on construction until the new sewer and water systems are completed.

"The unrest on Buffalo Hollow is the people wantin' to go home," according to Ruth Morris, who did just that and to hell with the government quarantine.

       "It's not much up here.  But what we're fightin' for, it's home."

 

Collected on Braeholm Hill, with the happiness that James Miller is alive and the sadness that James Brunty must be dead, in shock after the destruction they witnessed, the destruction now lying in front of them, not yet really comprehending the enormity of their loss, Pug and Mabel and James Robert and Deborah Ann Mitchem travel to Mabel’s younger brother's trailer outside the hollow for shelter.

Saturday night, they can't sleep. Pug and Mabel lie awake all night, Mabel with a horrible, undescribable feeling, afraid to go to sleep, afraid of another flood, thinking the water is going to get her, thinking she is about to die.  Out of her mind: "Where is that river?  Is it rising?" Senseless questions no one knows how to answer.

Sunday, the Mitchems move in with Mabel's sister, and from February 28th to April 4th the four Mitchems and the sister and the sister's son live together in a two-room apartment. The close quarters rub them raw.  Nervousness is contagious.  So is insomnia.

The family makes return trips to the rubble at Braeholm when they can get through the police lines.  At first, all of them together.  Then, one day, when the family plans to go up the hollow, James Robert is on the couch, on his knees, his head down toward his knees: "My head is killing me and I can't go back up there any more." And he doesn't.

April 4th, and at last the Mitchems can move out of the two-room apartment into a HUD trailer . . . not on their homesite, not at Braeholm, but at Crites, six communities up the valley. It is morning, and 14-year-old James Robert is crying, sitting down, crying, begging: "Please don’t make me go. Please don't make me go." And Pug Mitchem has to use his coal miner's strength to force his son to go up the hollow.  To their new home.

There, James Robert wants to be with his father all the time.  When Pug goes to work, James Robert goes into his room and closes the door and doesn't come out until Pug comes home.  If Pug just walks outside, James Robert must be there.

Debbie, a tall slender, sensitive girl who wants to go home, home to Braeholm, sits in the trailer and talks with Mabel.  They talk about the flood.  “Why?" Debbie asks over and over.  "Why, Mom?  Why did it happen?"

But the fall and school bring positive changes. James Robert begins to make friends with neighbors at the trailer camp, new neighbors, because the old community is gone.  And soon, while he used to stay in his room and never come out, he's always away, coming home only to eat and sleep. Pug and Mabel feel relieved.  But, then, a slowly realized shock.  That the "high moral standards" and the "family" life also have been casualties of the flood.

"All the while," Mabel says, "it turns out he had been keeping company with people with low moral standards and in fact very disreputable characters -- all the while disregarding any and all moral standards we have set for him.

       "Since people have a tendency to group themselves, Braeholm had no low-class people.  We have been thrown into nothing more than slums.  We have no control over how we have to live."

       The Millers obtain property in Kistler and are among the lucky few to build new homes. Callie Brunty is in and of the hospital, living with the Millers when she can go home. The Adkins find a place in South Man.  And the Mitchems, too, move . . . across the road from one section of the Crites trailer camp to another section, because the new highway, which will take their property in Braeholm, also will cross the land on which their temporary HUD trailer sits.

       Shortly after the flood, at a community meeting of flood victims, the people of Buffalo Hollow decide to form the Buffalo Creek Citizens Disaster Committee. It will be chaired by black service station operator Charles Cowan and will have 21 representatives from valley communities.  Among them is Pug Mitchem. The committee obtains the prestigious Washington law firm of Arnold and Porter and files a $52-million lawsuit against Pittston.  Eventually, 672 men, women and children are parties to the suit.

       The Citizens Committee is recognized as the buffer between the people and the government, dealing with the governor and the state agencies and the federal agencies. Pushing for sewer and water systems, pushing for quick housing construction.

       Pug Mitchem is sitting in a green reclining chair in the cramped living room of his HUD trailer, drawing on a Raleigh filter cigarette.  Mabel is sitting on the orange couch, puffing a Belair from an almost empty pack beside the glass ashtray sitting on the couch beside her. Debbie leaves the room when the conversation turns to the flood.

       Pug Mitchem has remained one of a half-dozen members keeping somewhat active in the Buffalo Creek Citizens Disaster Committee, but he has become cynical about the committee's value. Mostly, the committee today is Charlie Cowan, respected for his contributions to the community since the flood, but losing support from those who don't share his optimism about the future, his trust in the good word of West Virginia's governor.

       "Charlie, he's got the patience of Job," Mabel Mitchem says.  She means it kindly.  But she also means that her patience is worn out.

       "I'm coming to the conclusion that the state's not going to do a thing except what they have to do," Pug Mitchem says. "Some of us spent a great deal of time at what I recognize now was beating our heads against a stone wall.

       "I personally hate this damn trailer with a passion.  It's small.  I just don't like livin' in a trailer.  There's no privacy whatsoever.

       "My daughter can go in her room and close the door and my wife can sit here on the couch and talk with me and we'll all hear what everybody else is saying.  You shut the doors and there's still no privacy.

       "My wife's family had a habit, a good habit.  They used to visit us every Sunday.  Here, if we're all in here, some of us have to sit on the floor.  You can't put a meal on the table and sit at the table.  There's just not enough room.

       "We're waitin' on the lawsuit, to see how it turns out.  But it may be a long time. In a suit of this kind, I compare it to a compensation case -- the company figures, 'The longer we put them off, maybe they'll die.'"

       The Mitchems would like to rebuild on their property in Braeholm, but their property in Braeholm is going for the highway. They could borrow to build elsewhere, but they worked hard for their pre-flood debtlessness and they don't want to go in debt now because of the flood they didn't cause.

       So they wait on the lawsuit, glad that they chose that route over immediate settlement with Pittston, knowing those who settled with Pittston, who rejected filing suit, and who now have discovered they settled for much less than they need to replace the physical possessions they lost, knowing that money -- no matter how much -- won’t really be adequate compensation.

       “I don’t think in terms of dollars. You can never repay the people for what they’ve been through,” Mabel says. “You can’t make it up in dollars and cents.”

       Pug explains, “There’s things that people gather through everyday life that you can’t replace once it’s gone. My wife had a flower in the front yard. It belonged to her Dad who died in the sixties. It was a weakly flower and I thought we should move it to give it a better chance to live, but she was afraid if we moved it it'd die.  So we left it there and tried to take extra good care of it.

       "She loved it, because it belonged to him.  Now it's gone.

            It’s like that even in the winter. In these mountains, rain is more likely than snow and the snow that does come often comes in brooding dark storms.

          As Christmas comes to Buffalo Hollow, it brings with it the message that the seasons change more quickly than the lives of the flood survivors. The Mitchems are getting ready for the holiday. If there is to be a traditional big family gathering, Pug says, it will be "too crowded in the trailer to really enjoy yourself."  That, of course, is a problem many families won't have, because many families aren't so big any more.

          There is some good news, though.  Governor Moore has announced that, because of its mammoth coal resources, West Virginia doesn't face the same kind of energy crisis that is dimming Christmas decorations in other parts of the country.

       The Mitchems and their neighbors can string as many colored lights as they like and can illuminate trees as big as will fit inside the HUD trailers in Buffalo Creek Valley, West Virginia.

 

       Published in Rolling Stone, January 3, 1974

       Reprinted in Reporting: The Rolling Stone Style (Doubleday, 1977)

       Copyright 1974 Tom Price

       Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

 

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