Friday, January 24, 2014

Buffalo Creek Flood of '72: Why Environmental Disasters are Nothing New In West Virginia

by Nomad

Next month marks the 42nd anniversary of one of West Virginia's worst man-made disaster, The Buffalo Creek Flood. We take a look back to learn what did and what did not happen and why it is important for the people of West Virginia in the aftermath of the recent chemical spill.

A Man-Made Disaster

On an early Saturday morning on February 26th, 1972, West Virginia was the scene of one of the worst man-made disasters in this country's history. Without warning, a retaining dam wall built by a local coal mining company to hold the immense coal-waste refuse pile gave way. The coal slurry rolled down from the nearby hill and thundered down into the long narrow Buffalo Creek Valley. 

The black wave of rainwater, black coal-waste water, and sludge from a coal washing operation- an estimated 130 million gallons of it- created a deadly a 20 to 30-foot tidal wave, catching the residents completely unaware. The tsunami traveled at a speed reaching 30 miles per hours and ended up devastating sixteen small communities. 
The slurry was deadly in another way too. Here is a list of the chemicals typically found in coal slurry and sludge. 
Chronic exposure to the metals found in coal slurry can damage virtually every part of the body. Health problems caused by these metals include intestinal lesions, neuropathy, kidney and liver failure, cancer, high blood pressure, brittle bones, miscarriages and birth defects among others. Studies of the effects of coal slurry on human cell tissues have found evidence that coal slurry causes cancerous proliferation, cell death and damage to kidney cells.
Of course, the victims had more to worry about than the long-term effects of exposure to toxic waste. Over 125 people died immediately, of those most were women and children unable to extract themselves from the sludge and debris. There were over 4000 survivors and in the end, 1000 of their homes and all of their possessions were destroyed.

Here' a description of the aftermath from Gerald M. Stern's book The Buffalo Creek Disaster:  
The nightly news on TV showed pictures of fast-moving water, fleeting glimpses of dead bodies cover with black water, people sobbing their stories to interviewers while the camera bore in even closer on their  pained contorted faces.
"We spent the night in the makeshift morgue in the junior high gym. More bodies, more survivors were coming in all night. We didn't sleep. People were quietly going about their business, stacking bodies on tables and cleaning the mud and coal dirt off them. Otherwise, the silence was so deep you could hear a flea sneeze. One family had a birthday that day, and they'd been shopping and were preparing for a party and this flood hits them, and that night, they're being lined up in a morgue. It makes you say, 'My God, there but for the grace of God go I. ' "
To understand all of the factors that led, directly or indirectly, to this completely avoidable disaster, we have to take a wider view.  

King Coal

The owner of the mining company was Buffalo Mining Company, a West Virginia corporation whose sole stockholder was the New York firm of the Pittson Company
It the time of the accident, Pittson was the leading independent producer of coal in America and ranked fourth in production among all U.S. coal-mining concerns. With owned 374,969 acres in Appalachia in its possession,  Pittson was also the fifth largest corporate landowner.  Only two years before Buffalo Mining had become one small part of Pittson portfolio.  That purchase was a smart move. With lucrative contracts in coal with Japan and Europe, Pittson saw its profits nearly triple by 1971.

Even before the disaster in West Virginia, the Pittson's mines had had a poor record among regulators. In this same year, federal inspectors found more than 5000 safety violations in Pittston's mines for which the Bureau of Mines assessed the company $1.3 million in fines. 
But, for Pittson, things couldn't be brighter.

The oil crisis of the 70s had provided the company with a golden opportunity and  Pittston had increased its coal production to meet the demand for alternative fuels. The effect of the Arab oil embargo was a direct increase in the coal industry profit margin.  

Yet, despite the bonanza for the coal industry, there were growing concerns about federal regulation.
“with a solid base for continuing growth and possibly in the strongest position in its history…the strict standards incorporated in the new federal law will make the cost of mining go up in 1970 and will challenge the industry to come up with ways of boosting efficiency to keep costs as low as possible.”
The American public was demanding that government do more to stop industrial polluters. A couple of years before the disaster, Congress had enacted sweeping legislation called the Clean Air Act which had a direct impact on the coal industry. That year, Republican Nixon Administration had established the new agency called the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And as Coal Age puts it: 
Equipped with enforcement powers, a green police force was let loose upon the land.
Those nasty green police were proving to be a menace for the coal industry's bottom line. The disaster in West Virginia, therefore, could not have come at a worse time for the industry. 

The "Act of God" Defense

Immediately after the flood, as investigators began combing the area for clues and answers, the finger-pointing had already gotten underway.

Buffalo Mining official Ben Tudor told reporters that the company had attempted to drain the water behind the dams but was stopped by state officials for fear  the toxic water would kill trout. The state, he said, cares more about fish than people and now both are gone. However, as Stern points out, a check of state records showed that the coal company had never even made such a request.

The Pittson Company's defense was fairly basic. For one thing, it was not their negligence that caused the flood but Buffalo Mining's. And even then the flood was, they said, an unavoidable act of God. There was nothing that could have been done. Heavy rains had been the actual cause. Blaming God instead of human negligence was the kind of legal tactic that covers a lot of corporate sins. But most people were simply not buying it.
One federal official mocked  those claims from the coal company lawyers, saying, "God must be awful mean if he picks on West Virginia all the time."

A resident of the area agreed and added: "You can blame the Almighty, all right- the almighty dollar."

And the incident on Buffalo Creek was by no mean a unique one. The dangers of a coal slurry slide were well-known even by the general public. 
In October 1966, the tiny Welsh village of Aberfan in nearly exactly the same manner as the Buffalo Creek disaster. The disaster there had caused the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults and had made international headlines. The catastrophe led to concern in other coal mining communities.

In fact, in 1968 residents of  Buffalo Creek had feared the collapse of an earlier dam. So worried that one resident had actually written to the Governor of the state about it. Inspectors from the Public Service Commission and Water Resources Division looked at the dams but no further action was taken.
Tony Boyle, head of the United Mine Workers, declared:
Our Union has warned on many occasions that these slag heaps are unsafe. We have urged legislation to clean up this kind of mes in mine regions.
The problem was, of course, that nobody in West Virginia legislature was being paid to listen. And it should be added too that the Democratic Party has dominated West Virginia. 
Corruption is a bipartisan issue.  

Accountability, Negligence and Blame

The round of finger-pointing really cranked up when it reached the state level. West Virginia regulators had failed the citizens. State law outlawed the construction of any dam over 15 feet tall across any stream with out the prior determination by the state inspectors that the dam was safe. Nevertheless, since the dam was constructed, the state authorities had simply ignored the regulations. The dam deemed safe, at least, by default.  

For his part, the West Virginia Governor Arch Moore blamed the news media for ignoring the plight of the victims and were concentrating too much on accusations.
The only surprise that arose from the later investigation was the number of state agencies that had ignored the warnings and had neglected their jobs. 

According to one resident geologist, Jack Spadaro, who now works for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"The head of the Public Service Commission had a copy of [a warning letter from one of the residents back in 1968] and didn't do anything. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Natural Resources had been repeatedly asked to look at it. There was this letter to the governor that was passed on down through the layers of government, and nowhere along the way did anyone take any kind of decisive action.
"There were other people in the valley, I don't remember their names, who complained regularly. They went to a Mr. Oval Damron, who was prosecutor in the county at the time, but he didn't take any action. He knew about the problem, but he didn't take any action.
"During the four years between '68 and '72, there had been plenty of attention placed on the potential hazards of the dam collapsing and no one from the government took any decisive action, even though there was some law on the books that should have protected those people.
"There was a requirement from the Public Service Commission that a permit had to be granted before the dam could be constructed. They didn't go through the procedures that were required by state law to get the permit for the dam, so that was one violation. So it was a good case of the general public concern being completely ignored by the people who were supposed to protect them. There was a clear hazard there, and the state officials ignored the hazard.
Clearly at a state level, West Virginia had failed its citizens. And it would fail them again when it came time for justice to be served. When the state sued the company for 100 million for disaster and relief damages, three days before leaving office in 1977, Governor Moore ended up settling for a mere $1 million. 

Incidentally, Moore would later be convicted on corruption charges. claiming that "he used his position to extort $573,000 in October 1985 from the Maben Energy Corporation, a coal company based in the town of Beckley."

Then victims of the Buffalo Creek Flood naturally began asking where was the federal government? Weren't there already enough regulations to prevent this kind of accident? As Congress began asking questions, they soon discovered that there were plenty but most of them dealt with protecting mine workers and not the communities around the mine. Those people were, it seemed, left to the fickle mercy of God. 
The good news, as one high-level government official pointed out at the time, the regulations worked. No mine employee on duty was lost in the flood.

In the end, there was some thin veneer of compensation to the victims. In June 1974, lawyers for 625 survivors agreed to Pittson Company lawyer's $13.5 million offer. Divided among them and after legal fees were deducted, they received approximately $13,000 for each individual or $61.5 thousand each in 2014 dollars. A second suit on behalf of the child victims was settled for $4.8 million despite asking for $225 million.

A later report called Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens' Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community  lays the blame squaring on the company and the state legislature.
Every ton of coal coming out of the eight mines operated by Buffalo Mining Company brings dollars to the stat treasury, the UMW welfare fund and the Pittson's stockholders. Compared to the urgency of moving coal to the fantastically profitable Japanese and European markets, the human needs of the Buffalo Creek mining communities have dwindled into insignificance.
Today the claim by Koch-funded organizations is that regulation does harm to the local economy.  According to this report, however, even when things were riding high for the industry the standard of living had not improved for the people of Buffalo Creek. None of the profits were actually going back to the community.  
Bureaucracies, whether of union, state or corporate origin adhere to a basis laissez-faire policy where profits are concerned. Overlapping interests make a mockery of the law. Tough sounding rules and regulations turned out to an illusion.
The people of Buffalo Creek assumed that their governors and regulatory agencies were dedicated to protecting their welfare. They were woefully misled. Many have paid with their lives for this misplaced faith.
The flood and the litigation that followed provided another example of the need for tighter protection of the environment, adding fuel to the ecology movement of the 1970s. That movement aimed at public awareness about of environmental issues, particularly about water pollution, solid waste disposal, dwindling energy resources, radiation, pesticide poisoning. 

Furthermore, the grassroots ecology movement provided the impetus for important environmental legislation. Here is a short list of some of these laws:
Back then, it was understood that only a powerful federal authority could tackle the problem of environmental pollution. It could not be solved at a local level. The West Virginia, back in 1972 (and today) demonstrates how easily one powerful industry could corrupt the system. In the 1970s, voters realized that something had to be done. Voters demanded that Congress and the president take action to protect its citizens from pollution for the sake of corporate profit.

Along Came ALEC

In December 2013, it was reported how one well-financed organization was doing its best to undermine all of the regulatory legislation of that era and to defund the agencies that were created. The American Legislative Exchange Council, other known as ALEC, (you know,  that non-profit 501(c)  charitable  organization) has aimed its formidable lobbying powers against EPA regulations, calling them (in, I think, a clever piece of marketing, "train-wreck legislation.")
In one report,  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Assault on State Sovereignty, ALEC states:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun a war on the American standard of living. As of 2010, EPA regulations promulgated under the Obama Administration had already surpassed the Agency’s regulatory output in the entire first term of Bill Clinton..

With 30 major regulations and more than 170 policy rules still being finalized in the next five years, the extent of EPA actions could surpass its entire 40- year history of regulation.
ALEC claims that voters must choose between economic prosperity, jobs or regulations that protect the water and air.
Numerous regulations, all proposed within a short timeframe, have created regulatory chaos and uncertainty, stagnating investment as the economy attempts to recover from recession.
The correlation between deregulated industry- such as coal mining- and a high standard of living for the region has never been evident in West Virginia. It certainly wasn't true prior to the 1970s environmental regulations. One look at photos of the region in the 1960s - before the EPA- proves pretty conclusively that poverty and environmental regulations are not related. But the quality of life- and indeed survival in the basic sense- may not be possible without proper regulations.

And there's something else to consider. The ALEC lobbyists claim that regulating the industry has hurt coal production and in turn, it has meant fewer jobs for the region.
This is false. Under the regulation, coal production has gone up while employment in West Virginia mines has gone down steadily since a small peak in the 1980s. No amount of deregulation will change that since this is a long-term trend dating back to the last 1940s. The decline of the US steel industry is due to competition with foreign steel makers. As the steel industry went into decline so too did coal industry. Unfortunately for the people of the region, coal mining will probably never see a return to its glory days.

The reason abolition of coal industry regulation is a top priority for ALEC lobbyists is simple: to squeeze the last bit of the profit from an industry in free fall at the cheapest possible price.

The people of West Virginia have lately been given a double dose of trouble. On one hand, their water supply has been contaminated by a chemical spill, forced to rely on outside sources of water and are now told to drink water that they have no reason to trust. The long-term effects of the contamination on human health are unknown. 
After years of being courted by anti-regulation ALEC lobbyist, only now legislators of the state are making the right sounds at the right time.
West Virginia’s Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, vowed that he was going to “look into tighter regulation of chemical storage facilities,” but with Republicans in deregulation mode, pushing to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, and fighting to rollback regulations on businesses, looking into tighter regulations is about all Tomblin will be allowed to do.
As if that weren't enough, we see some on the Left are blaming the West Virginia voters for putting the de-regulating Republicans in control in the first place. 

Surely this is a case of blaming the victim, something I thought the only other party liked to do. However, perhaps it's not altogether unfair to ask: how many times will voters have to face hardships like the West Virginia spill before they translate their anxieties into action come election time?

Isn't it time to vote out the un-elected legislating lobbyists from ALEC?