Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on August 6, 1972 · Page 67
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 67

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, August 6, 1972
Page 67
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Page 67 article text (OCR)

The "Company Town" lias been replaced by the "Government Town." and Kat looked outside, her horn* and family were gone. Now Kathleen Waugh lives three miles below Stowe in Latrobe No. 3 mobile home park in trailer No. 30 with her sole ·urviving daughter, Janet Lee, 17, who was staying with a girlfriend the night before the flood. . "I hear there are one or two families still left in Stowe," Kat says, "I don't know. I've never been back." Kat-recalls that in 1963, and again in 1967, after heavy rains, there were warnings the dam above Saunders might break and she and her family spent the night with friends on the hill. And she's read reports-"lies" she calls them-that residents of Buffalo Creek were warned again this time, but took no heed. "If I had had any warning, I'd never have left my family," she says quietly. But her voice turns bitter when she recalls the press coverage of the disaster. A Life magazine article Kat read talked of the "ill health" and "poverty" along Buffalo Creek. The flood, Life reported! hit about "stove lighting time." "Hell," Kat says, "I haven't had a coal Itove for years." "My husband made $10-to-$12,000 a year. My son and daughter graduated high school and could have gone on to college. They talked about us like we were trash living in shacks." Now, Kat spends most of her day alone watching television, trying to get used to the silence of the trailer. "Old habits are hard to break," she »ays. "I had a house full of children and stayed home all the time. Wherever I did fo thai children followed. Now I've got plenty of time and nowhere to 'go. Buffal ° Mining Co., a subsidiary of the Pittston Co.-the nation's largest independent coal producer-- constructed a series of waste dams behind the company's slag heap to ensure a water supply for it s nearby coal cleaning plant and to create a series of settling ponds to treat effluent water released from the plant. The plant, which services the eight mines Buffalo Mining operates in the valley, uses about 500,000 gallons of water daily to STATE MAGAZINE, August 6, 1972 wash away the combination of slate, dirt,' and inferior coal--known as slag--that accompanies raw coal when it comes from the mine. A lake, one-half mile long and 40 feet deep stood behind the fatal dam when itgaytway. Though the company has never acknowledged responsibility for the flood-one Pittston official called it an "act of God"-Buffalo Mining Co. opened up · claims office in Man one month after the disaster. According to a spokesman, a little over one half of the 1,680 claims filed to date have been settled or are in the settlement process. Kat Waugh has settled for "around $75,000" for her loss, 20 per cent of which will go to her attorney. She says she has no desire to contest the amount. "There's no point, in arguing back and forth," Kat says. "I've done lost all I can lose." Buffalo Mining .is "trying to meet human needs" its spokesman says, and "every claimant enjoys a betterment" from his previous situation. Not everyone on Buffalo Creek agrees. When Harold Christian, 42, a coal miner employed with Buffalo Mining, returned to his five-room house in Lundale after the flood, the porches were gone, the foundation undermined, the interior and paneling filled with mud. Christian says-he has already spent $1,984 in materials and paid a carpenter $800 for repairs. The house still requires further Work, he says. . Buffalo Mining has offered Christian $1,400 to settle the damages, he-says. "They tell you if you don't want to take it, you can get a lawyer." Christian was one of 45 Buffalo Creek residents who traveled by bus to Richmond, Va. in early May to protest the handling of claims at the Pittston Co.'s annual stockholder's meeting. When he returned to Buffalo Creek, Christian says, he was fired by Buffalo Mining for being absent without a medical excuse. A member of the citizens group, who had negotiated with Pittston president Nicholas T. Camicia in Richmond, called Camicia to protest .the firing. Christian was reinstated. "They couldn't s'tand any more bad publicity" i* Christian's explanation. Early in June, other Buffalo Mining employes staged a wildcat strike' protesting the amounts of claims settlements and the company's refusal to pay wages lost when tht flood forced closure of area mines. Before a court Injunction forced the miners back to work, all but three of Logan County's 33 coal mines were idled by the strike. According to the company, the miners demand for lost wages is not a "legally enforceable claim." Opal Roark, 31, is angered at the company's policy of asking property owners to furnish proof-of-purchase receipts to substantiate their property damage claims. The Roarks were among the lucky ones at Lundale. Fifty-three of their neighbors were swept away by the flood. "The house was coming behind us as we S t into the car," recalls Ervine Roark, , a 16-year veteran coal miner. From their vantage point on the hillside to which they fled, the Roarks watched the. flood waters carry away their home. "My husband and I have been married for 15 years," Opal Roark says, "and we watched everything we owned destroyed in 40 minutes." Now, she charges, "Pittston's treating tht people like a bunch of animals. They think we should go back to the companies where we traded to get receipts. Pittston never gavt us a receipt after the dam broke." Ironically, the disaster has been a partial boon to Donzel Grimmett, 33, and his family. Nine years ago, unable to find wo* in the mines, Donzel left his native West Virginia and joined thousands of Appalachian migrants in Chicago where he found a job in an auto parts plant. In early 1970, with the promise of work in a small, locally owned mine, the Grimmetts returned to Buffalo creek where they lived with Donzel's sister in Pardee while they looked for a home of their own. On the day of the flood, Donzel had planned to look at a house in the valley he heard was for sale for $1.500. A neighbor awakened the sleeping c m i y wi l h word of the dam failure Shoeless, Donzel grabbed Anita Faye 5 and Donzel Jr., 4, in his arms and, with his wife, fled to the hillside. Now Donzel and Janice, 27, and their two children live in a new HUD trailer at Si? 1 n u r miles down stream from where Donzel's sister's home was destroyed by the flood. ..!PS l r !i ler i s a little sma11 -" Janj ce says, but they hope to purchase it when their year's free rent .expires. ^ ze l h u as had a little hard lu ck since the flood, however. He lost his job at the mine after a dispute with his foreman over missing a day s work to take Anita Faye to a clinic for treatment of a fever. He hopes to get a job either laying the new sewer line or working on the fll.8 million highway planned for Buffalo Creek. Almost in passing, he mentions that every time it rains the children start to cry. And Anita Faye asks, "Daddy, are we going to have to run again?'' "You know," Donzel says, "they never used to be afraid of water." Grass is beginning to grow along Buffalo Creek, and much is new in the valley. But the tragedy of the dam collapse follows an old pattern in Appalachia. Four studies by government engineers have documented that the dam was improperly constructed. "Practices (of dam construction) currently at use in the state, if the Buffalo Creek situation is typical, are comparable to those generally abandoned in the period between 1930 and 1940 as a result of the St. Francis dam failure in California in 1927," concluded Fred C. Walker, former head of the earth dams section of the Bureau of Reclamation. Walker added that Buffalo Mining Co. failed to comply with West Virginia law requiring permits, approval of plans, and inspection during construction of all impoundments more than 10 feet high. * A special Interior task force study found that in February, 1971, during weather conditions similar to those proceeding the disaster, a portion of the dam failed, resulting in a "weak spot." The Bureau of Mines cited Buffalo Mining for failing to instruct an employe to make weekly inspections of the dam, a violation of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act punishable by a $25 fine. ». A reporter unearthed a letter that former Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Undall sent in 1967 to a score of local, state, and federal officials, in West Virginia. The letter reported that of 38 coal refuse banks examined in West Virginia, 30 were found to be unstable and could be overtopped by flood waters. »· Another newsman recalled a warning sounded by Rep. Ken Hechler, D-W. Va., a consistent advocate of mine safety, after a coal waste bank collapsed in Aberfam, Wales, in October, 1966, killing 121 persons. The people of Logan County, Hechler warned at the time, are "living under the threat of annihilation. If nothing is done, * we'll have the kind of catastrophe that happened in Wales." Nothing was done. +· In May, a resolution was presented to the stockholders of the Pittston Co. asking that the company report annually on the progress of claims settlements arising from the Buffalo Creek flood; report on potential hazards arising from Pittston's mining operations; and "give forceful leadership" to attempts to correct the ecological damages caused by coal mining. The resolution was defeated by a vote of 12 million to 1,171. The residents of Appalachian mining communities have always lived at the mercy of forces beyond their control:-the economic swings of the coal industry for their livelihoods, the strength of a mine roof for the lives of their men. The flood which wiped out the collective existence of the people of Buffalo Creek was only the most visible and most terrible of those forces. Life goes on along Buffalo Creek. Ervine Roark is back in the mines pinning top for Amherst Coal Co.; Donzel Grimmett is looking for a job again. And Kathleen Waugh is just trying to live. "I get up every morning and say I'm not going to cry today, and sometimes I make CHARLESTON, JO^. , 5m.

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