We Have Learned Nothing from Buffalo Creek

Fossil Fuel industry continues to put profits over people

Lessons from West Virginia critical for North Carolina as pipeline debate continues

LOGAN, W.Va. – Forty-seven years ago today, 125 West Virginians died when the Buffalo Creek Mining Company waste containment pond dam burst at the head of Buffalo Creek, releasing 135 million gallons of water, sludge and mud to form a 30-foot high wall of debris that rushed through the valley below. In addition to the dead, several thousand people were displaced and approximately 1,000 homes destroyed.

While I was only 15 at the time, I remember it well. That is because on the next day, a Sunday, the youngest priest in our parish – Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Clarksburg, W.Va. – did not mince words in his homily. He unapologetically launched into a stinging criticism of the coal industry and state officials, who he considered complicit in the tragedy. His homily drove a wedge not only in the parish, but in many families. As an idealistic teenager, I found myself at odds with my dad, who was not pleased that the priest had used Mass to speak to a current event – especially in Coal Country. He and my mom had quite a donnybrook that afternoon after Mass. That they did was not surprising; dad had a business perspective, mom a social justice point-of-view.

I remained quiet, but it was at that moment that I began to question the propaganda of the coal industry. I don’t question it anymore. I KNOW it is cowpatties.

Six or seven years after the tragedy, Sarah and I were visiting another priest and close family friend who was stationed in Logan at the time. He took us on a “tour” of the area. Evidence of the devastation remained, and old mining houses with families living in abject poverty lined the dirt roads. I recall thinking that once the TV cameras and reporters with their notepads left the scene, the area returned to business as usual.

That is still the case.

The death and destruction resulting from Mountaintop Removal is thoroughly documented here and elsewhere. I have written here about at least a dozen reasons that fracking is bad for all living things. Additionally the rush by energy companies such as Duke Energy, Dominion Resources, Consol Energy and others to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Mountain Valley Pipeline and several others is trampling upon individual rights, threatening endangered species and unspoiled forest land. It also poses a clear and present danger to human life, as there have literally been hundreds of pipeline explosions and other health problems since the turn of the century, such as the child pictured who suffers from nosebleeds and other ailments due to living in the midst of the fracking fields in northern West Virginia.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in all three states are displaying an appalling lack of historical awareness, gutting laws that protect people and the environment from the deadly practices of the industry.

In short, it is business as usual. As we learned from Buffalo Creek, that is a disaster waiting to happen.

© Michael Mathers Barrick, 2015-2019. Buffalo Creek photo credit: James Hagood Collection 2048 05. MTR and child photo courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. 

Home page photo of pipeline construction adjacent to a house in northern W.Va.