National Memorial for the Mountains
Buffalo Mountain, WV
|People often ask, “Are there pictures of the mountains before mountaintop removal coal mining destroyed them?” Thanks to the United States Geologic Survey and Google Earth, they are right here at your fingertips!
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mountaintop removal coal mining began.
(Download these images by clicking on the pictures below)
Penny Loeb is a distinguished author and the web designer for http://www.wvcoalfield.com , who has generously allowed her articles to be reprinted here.
No two words carry more drama and pain in the coalfields. They symbolize all the dangers of surface mining. They speak of the callous attitude the mines sometimes show towards those who live nearby. On February 26, 1972, a dam constructed of coal waste broke loose near the head of Buffalo Creek. The poorly constructed dam was holding back a lake of water used for cleaning coal. The lake was perched between two hills. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of black water rushed down the valley like a tidal wave. The death toll totaled 125. Hundreds of homes were swept away.
Now residents of the coalfields use “Buffalo Creek” to express their fears of possible floods from the ponds at the ends of valley fills. Others fear a collapse of similar dams made of coal waste that hold back large ponds of cleaning water in places like Laurel Creek, Ragland and Lick Creek. The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was enacted as a result of Buffalo Creek. The federal and state laws are supposed to prevent any more deadly floods. So far no dams such as the one at Buffalo Creek have broken. However, more and more coalfield residents believe that the valley fills are exacerbating floods.
The only part of the creek that was spared in the flood was that above the dam. It doesn’t have a name, but the small group of houses and churches at the head of the hollow has been home to the Gibson and Osborne families for a century.
In the 1890s, the Gibson and Osborne ancestors sold the rights to the timber and minerals on and under their land for a few hundred dollars. Today the houses in the picture and the others in the hollow sit above coal seams worth millions of dollars. Most of the men in the Gibson and Osborne families worked in underground mines. Now some are too disabled to work.
In the mid-1980s, Peabody Coal’s Eastern Associated mine began deep mining under the Buffalo Creek community. Within a few years, most of the wells went dry. The mine paid to have some drilled. But other residents had to spend $3,000 or $4,000 for a new well and filter system to keep out the iron and sulfur contamination.
More recently wells dried up at the church where Calvin Gibson preaches and at his late father’s house across the creek. For several years, Gibson tried to get the mine to drill wells. Finally, he appealed to the Division of Environmental Protection in the summer of 1997. The mine maintained it hadn’t come close enough to the properties to cause the wells to go dry. But finally in December 1997, DEP ordered the mine to drill the wells. A small, but significant victory for this seemingly forgotten community.
Down the creek about eight miles towards Man, residents won another small victory. But first they suffered through a flood that recalled the disaster of 1972. About a mile behind Cartwright Hollow is a large valley fill from an Arch Coal Inc. mine. When hard rains fell in late June and early July, flood waters rose to five feet by the Mounts’ home at the mouth of the hollow. When the waters receded, piles of coal remained in the yards. Residents said their photos and videos showed the settling ponds weren’t maintained properly, and the valley fill was not properly benched. Inspectors from the DEP refused to cite the mine. Instead they blamed much of the flooding on a timbering operation on the adjacent mountain.
“Just as it was not an â€˜Act of God’ that killed those 125 people, â€˜Mother Nature’ is not responsible for this recent flooding as your own DEP inspector and the local media would have us believe. It was Arch, combined with the negligence of your agency,” Terry and Kristi Mounts wrote DEP Director John Caffrey. At their request, the federal Office of Surface Mining conducted an investigation. The mine was eventually cited with a violation.
Interview with Gertie Moore
January 29, 2007
It is odd that nearly every town with a coal-mine is a rural ghetto, considering the profits from coal. Mining companies do not enrich the communities from where they operate rather, they do more to deplete them. Time and history shows the coal companies’ disregard for the communities they have exploited and often destroyed.
Ed Wiley resides in one of these towns. He is now lobbying for a safer elementary school. Wiley’s granddaughter attends Marsh Fork elementary school in the town of Sundial, West Virginia located near Whitesville. Marsh Fork has 230 children and is 400 yards away from a mountaintop removal coal mine. The school is below the Shumate sludge impoundment that holds 2.8 billion gallons of toxic sludge in a 385-foot-high dam. The creek surrounding the elementary school is polluted and the air conditioners suck in the same coal dust that children will inhale in their barb-wired fenced playground.
If the Shumate sludge impoundment ever breaks the school’s emergency procedure is a bullhorn. The school will have less then three minutes to evacuate the school before the black coal water is 6 feet high and rising to 15 feet.
Wiley has a legitimate pretense to be concerned for his granddaughter’s safety. In 1966 a colliery waste tip collapsed off of Merthyr mountain in Wales and buried 116 children between ages 7 to 10, this was to be known as the Aberfan disaster. Although the waste tip’s instability was known, nothing was done and no apology has ever been made by the coal company.
In 2000 a Massey energy dam in Martin County, Kentucky broke allowing 300 million gallons of sludge to pollute the water supply.
Another tragic example is the Buffalo Creek disaster that occurred 35 years ago. Imagine hearing a horrible boom while you are cooking breakfast at 8 a.m. one morning, you go outside and hear your neighbor screaming “The dam has broke!” and a 25 to 30 foot wave of black coal water is demolishing houses and cars and taking your neighbors with it. It is difficult to describe such an experience. If someone is fortunate enough to survive it, the psychological scars will traumatize for a lifetime.
The Pittston coal company in Buffalo Creek knew about the possibility of danger beforehand but there are mixed stories about a warning call. “Yah, they warned us, one man just laughed it off cause there had been so many warnings before that he didn’t believe itâ€¦that man died,â€? said one survivor. Another survivor said she didn’t hear any warning except for the sound the dam made when it broke.
125 people were killed, three were never found, over a thousand were injured and 4,000 were left homeless. The destroyed communities were split apart into different trailer parks and there was nearly nothing left of the town of Saunders, West Virginia.
People were outraged when the Pittston coal company excused the disaster as “an act of God”. “The coal company is more responsible for it than God because they were the ones that built it and they didn’t give out any information on it,â€? said one survivor.
To place responsibility on God immediately after one of your dams has broke and killed over a hundred people sounds insensitive and irresponsible to be heard from a coal company in a time of despair, but it does hold a grain of truth.
It was raining for an entire week before the dam in Buffalo Creek collapsed. Hurricane Katrina was obviously a catalyst for the levee’s collapse in New Orleans as was the rain for Buffalo Creek’s dam.
As global warming continues and the oceans rise the world can expect an increase in the frequency and intensity of harsh weather from hurricanes to storms. The severe weather along with poorly constructed dams will cause more dams to break and it is paramount that Marsh Fork elementary does not become another Buffalo Creek or Aberfan disaster.
It’s important to note that the Buffalo Creek survivors I interviewed have no vendetta against coal mining, they are not deep into politics but they do respect human life and wish that the coal companies had done the same.
written by Kent Kessinger
“The Buffalo Creek Flood : An Act of Man” and “Buffalo Creek Revisited,” two videos produced by Appalshop and Mimi Pickering. The videos and associated website document the history and current state of mining in the Appalachians, as well as the events leading up to the flood. Visit www.buffalocreekflood.org for more information and to watch a few clips.
For more information, contact:
91 Madison Ave
Whitesburg, KY 41858
606 335-2610 mobile
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