Have We Learned Anything from Buffalo Creek?

Mountaintop removal, natural gas fracking and the rush to develop gas pipelines suggest it is ‘Business as usual’

By Michael M. Barrick

Look at the weather
Look at news
Look at all the people in denial
We’re burning time; bleeding grace
Still, we worship at the marketplace while common sense is going out of style
I thought that I’d be above it all, by now
In some country garden in the shade

But it’s business as usual
Day after day
Business as usual
Grinding away
You try to be righteous
You try to do good
But business as usual
Turn your heart into wood

From “Business as Usual” by the Eagles, © 2007

Forty-three years ago yesterday, 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. (For an outstanding, comprehensive story of that tragedy and its ramifications, see Brian Sewell’s account on the Appalachian Voices website).

Destruction at Buffalo Creek Photo courtesy of West Virginia State Archives

Destruction at Buffalo Creek
Photo courtesy of West Virginia State Archives

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 still do.

Six or seven years after the tragedy, my girlfriend (now wife) and I were visiting another priest and close family friend who was stationed in Logan, W.Va. 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 Power, 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 since the turn of the century. You can read here about efforts of one group among hundreds across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina that are standing firm against the energy extraction industry.

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.

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. The conference sponsor is St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Hickory, N.C. Our conference partner is the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. Learn about it here.

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4 responses

  1. […] the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster made it clear that workers were not the only ones being asked to risk their lives for the fossil […]

  2. […] the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster made it clear that workers were not the only ones being asked to risk their lives for the fossil […]

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