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Can America's Coal Towns, Left Vulnerable, Survive Dam Failures?

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Along Buffalo Creek, after you pass through the town of Man, up the stretch of unincorporated towns strung out along a single road, the schools and playing fields and diners and town offices thin out; rumors of a long-ago movie theater seem unimaginable now. Mostly there are the metal coal conveyor belts towering over the well-tended highway-side houses and churches, with the looming presence of the mines underground and wastewater dams overhead.

This is what happens when an industry buys a town. In its heyday in the twenties, Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia, was a mini-city, and the coal company owned it all, not only the movie theaters and pool halls. It was the landlord, mayor, police, banker, and school superintendent, and it paid doctors' and ministers' salaries and ran local politics. Then the Depression hit and jobs started drying up. The amenities were cut. Mechanical innovations led to more job cuts.

An old HUD camp set up at Buffalo Creek. Photos by Whitney Kimball.

The point of no return was the flood. It's been 43 years since the Pittston Company's coal slurry impoundment (the dam holding 132 million gallons of toxic wastewater from washing coal) broke, but the locals remember it like it was yesterday: the 20-foot wall of black water that tore through the hollow like a snake, running through 16 communities and killing 125 people. They remember how it slammed against mountainsides, carrying houses and neighbors, who were smashed into walls; bodies were made unidentifiable by the oily black coal slurry, and railroad ties were twisted like pretzels.

Money went into recovery operations, but it never seemed to reach the valley. West Virginia Governor Arch Moore never paid out the $3.7 million in reconstruction funds the state owed to the Army Corps of Engineers, and three days before his term ended in 1977, Moore settled a $100 million state lawsuit against the Pittston Company for just $1 million, forever absolving Pittston of guilt. A survivors' lawsuit for 4,000 now-homeless defendants settled for about $13,000 each, despite clear-cut negligence: records showed that the only written plan for the dam had been a doodle of a triangle. And while they waited to move back to their old homes, hundreds found out that the state had confiscated their lots to put in a new road. Only 107 of the 750 promised public housing units were ever rebuilt, and those were built on a pile of toxic coal refuse. Supposedly-temporary emergency trailer parks for Buffalo Creek survivors have grown into small neighborhoods, where residents have just tacked on rooms around the trailers as they could afford them. These once highly-planned communities have become haphazard, and they are more unprepared for a future mining disaster than ever before.

Coal country is a violent place; every few miles, a roadside sign advertises the names Hatfield and McCoy, and farther out in the valleys, machinery and rock faces and switchbacks seem incompatible with the human body. Driving through the mountains, a glaringly lit up coal conveyor belt rises suddenly around a sharp turn 50 feet from the ground—and just around the next turn, I have to swerve hard to avoid falling off the road where it's caved in.

The contrast is not random. The big landowners—coal, timber, natural gas, and real estate trusts—pay very low property taxes in West Virginia compared to, say, Wyoming, which produced only about half as much coal as West Virginia in 2008 but collected about 87 percent as much in property taxes from coal. The West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy estimated that the state would have made $402 million more in tax revenue that year if it had changed its rates from 6.5 percent to Wyoming's 10.6 percent.

The small roadside communities are humble but lovingly maintained, with close-knit yards and swing sets masking a few old HUD trailers in the mix, sharing not much more than a single post office and a few churches between them. Most of the towns in the Buffalo Creek valley are unincorporated communities, which means there's no municipal government (responsible for amenities like police, paid fire departments, municipal courts, and public transit, and for public works like sewage and road maintenance). In 1978, Buffalo Creek made an attempt to incorporate as its own city, but the Logan County courthouse blocked the motion, which would have forced coal companies to pay higher property taxes.

Low property taxes means that schools are underfunded, and in West Virginia, which has one of the lowest-performing school systems in the country, that means that people lose the opportunity to educate themselves out. "It's in the coal companies' best interests to keep people ignorant, fatalistic, and poor," mine safety and environmental researcher Leah Burdick told me over the phone. "People are trapped." Teenage boys seem to be everywhere, patrolling the county city of Logan late on weeknights, smoking cigarettes. Logan's unemployment rate is 9.3 percent. It looks like a shell of an American main street.

A HUD notice on an old trailer.

I had made tentative plans to meet flood survivors at the Buffalo Creek Memorial Library in the morning, and I was worried nobody would show up. One journalist who'd covered the 1972 tragedy warned me that Man, where the library is located, was a town of "coal owners and high-level company managers," and the decision to put the Memorial library there had salted existing class divides. (Governor Moore had promised that Buffalo Creek would get a community center as part of the rebuilding plan, which never went through.)

In walked Gertie Moore, a great-grandmother in her sixties, who'd come because, she said, "I don't want my people forgotten." She walks with a bit of a limp because of a bad back from an accident driving her school bus. On account of her bus route, Gertie had known about 80 percent of the victims. "Oh, honey," she started, and immediately teared up.

The memory of the flood that most sticks out in Gertie's mind is of a kindergartner named Darla Dillon, who'd brought her a bouquet of plastic flowers one morning. "Her mother had cleaned house over the weekend, I guess, and replaced them." Gertie began to cry. "She threw them away, and the little girl had got 'em and gave them to me. She wasn't but five years old." When the flood came, Gertie heard the roar and saw a 25- to 30-foot high wall of black water. Sitting on top was the Dillon house. The entire family were lost. To this day, any unknown noise is terrifying.

A memorial for those who died in the Buffalo Creek flood.

Gertie's old school bus passenger Timmy Hall (now white-bearded) walked in with a stack of printouts and an arsenal of documentation of the redevelopment process. He wants to talk about the government, how it only made people miserable, how it fulfilled none of its promises and added insult to injury when it repossessed people's old land to build a highway with disaster relief funds. "You think you're free?" he said. "They want your house, they'll come and take it. You don't even own anything." Gertie chimed in about mineral rights rules, how she doesn't even own the land that her property sits on. "If you don't pay taxes on it, they'll take it," Timmy added.

There are two culprits on Buffalo Creek: coal and government. When the environment is wrecked, the government blames "King Coal," and when jobs dry up, coal companies blame the government's "War on Coal." And when the damage is too brutal and too obvious, coal blames God—using "an Act of God" as its official defense for most mining accidents, including Buffalo Creek.

Glenna Wiley at home.

The phrase is unusually cruel. God is not to be invoked lightly in a devout community that is all too accustomed to loss from war, illness, and mining, and consequently struggling to cope with cosmic unfairness. The question of who was responsible still haunts Glenna Wiley, a perky 89-year-old who maintains the official Buffalo Creek Memorial (a roadside pavilion with a bench, flagpole, and stone marker) and has lost family in all of the above. She's told the Buffalo Creek story a thousand times—she goes out to welcome visitors and hosts a stop on the Coal Country Tours—but to this day, she's still turning over that phrase "an Act of God" in her mind. "You wonder why...and I thoroughly believe in God...but some said why did God let those little kids die, and why did he let those old people die? It's just something that happens," she thought about that for a moment and then added: "They didn't know...the people that was over the mine, they didn't know that was going to happen, I don't think."

Glenna hears rumors that another dam failure is coming. But if it does happen—and mine safety experts are sure it will—who will be held responsible?

I wanted to know about Glenna's rumors of another dam failure, so I asked Jack Spadaro, who co-wrote the damning Buffalo Creek investigative report at age 26 and has been in top mine safety positions ever since. Are they true?

"She's right," he said with absolute conviction.

"There's been failure to follow up on the standards in recent years, people got comfortable. And there will be, I am certain there will be, another massive dam failure at some point."

In 2003, Spadaro was ousted from his position as superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy when he blew the whistle on a cover-up of the massive Martin County Kentucky dam failure. The Bush administration, he said, cut the investigation short.

Mining at Buffalo Creek.

The spill happened to take place just at the transition of the Clinton administration, and he says it demonstrated the difference in attitudes. "I can tell you what Davitt McAteer [head of the MSHA under Clinton] did—he called me up and said, 'I want you to go to Kentucky and find out where we fucked up. Because I don't want it to happen again,'" he remembered. Come November, the tune completely changed. "[The Bush administration's] whole attitude was to protect the company from lawsuits and write reports that would let the company essentially off the hook for that dam failure." Bush would go on to appoint former coal company executives like Stanley Suboleski and Richard Stickler to top mine safety positions.

Most disturbingly, nobody cared.

"Three years after I had gone public with the [Martin County] cover-up, a reporter from the New York Times said to me, 'Why did my paper not cover this original disaster?' And I said, 'because it was in West Virginia.' Had it been a bunch of folks washed away with their lungs full of toxic mine waste in Connecticut, there would have been an uproar all over the country."

"I think that it would be impossible to go to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, or Western Massachusetts and start cutting off the tops of mountains, shoving everything into the valley, and expect people to accept it," he added. "I think we all know that."

On the flight out of Charleston, the Appalachian landscape looks like a paper that's been crumpled and just slightly smoothed out, with old paint water pooled in the wrinkles. Each time we pass over one, another, or two, come into view.

The EPA estimates that there are over 1,000 active coal ash dams in the country right now, with hundreds more inactive, which contain similar toxic materials but in even worse shape—a third of them are considered high and significant hazard risk, and 152 coal ash dams are rated in "poor" condition by the EPA. And they're breaking. In 2000, it happened in Martin County when 300 million gallons of toxic slurry broke from a slurry impoundment. It happened again in 2008 in Kingston, Tennessee, where a coal ash dam spilled 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly ash and slurry. And again in 2014 in Eden, North Carolina, where a pipe broke in an unlined coal ash pond, leaking 27 million gallons. Buffalo Creek is surrounded by new potentials. There's Brushy Fork to the east, the tallest dam in the Western Hemisphere, which people have been warning about for years (an elementary school was just moved out of the path); there's Mingo County, to the west, where residents have been drinking toxic groundwater from money-saving injections of coal slurry into the ground; there's Glen Lyn, to the south, where locals worry about a coal ash landfill which sits on the New River between two coal ash ponds. But this is cherry-picking; throw a dart anywhere in West Virginia, and you'll get a story.

What you can't find in the web of contradicting and incomplete official records is plain from above. Green mountains, the tops of which will ultimately be blown off, hold in the sickly-looking fields of slurry impoundments. You can't look down on the landscape without seeing one. The towns in their path are invisible.

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