When I started law school in 1997 one of my textbooks was the “The Buffalo Creek Disaster” by Gerald M. Stern. This book was a paperback about 150 pages and was easily the smallest and cheapest book of the large tomes I had to purchase. But it was also the best.
Buffalo Creek is a stream in Logan County West Virginia. It extends the length of the Buffalo Valley. Along the creed the coal companies established mining towns (coal camps) where the miners and their families lived. At the head of the stream was a coal loading facility. Part of the process of mining coal requires it to be washed and then loaded onto rail cars. The wash water was stored in ponds at headwaters of Buffalo Creek.
For many years, Buffalo Mining Company a subsidiary of Pittston Coal created these ponds by building earthen dams. By 1972, three dams had been constructed to store the dirty water. February of 1972 was very wet and by the end of the month the ground was soft with water. Then on February 26, the first dam broke, starting a chain reaction that destroyed the other two dams and sent a wall of water 30 feet high down the valley. At the end of the flood 125 had been killed, 1,121 injured and more than 4000 people were homeless.
Pittston Coal attempted to play the disaster off as an Act of God, indicating that there was no way to expect the dams to have collapsed. News of this position spread along the valley and enraged those who had survived the terrible event. In time, this defense was debunked by a report prepared by a committee appointed by then Gov. Arch Moore.
The victims of the flood then sued Pittston Coal and were able to recover $13.5 million for the victims of the flood. This amount was the highest ever paid in the United States at the time. Mr. Stern’s book details the process he followed in obtaining this settlement.
In the midst of attempting to understand Property, Contracts, and Civil Procedure, this book allowed me to focus on something I understood—helping people. When I was discussing the book with my Dad he told me that we had cousins who lost their house in the flood. That was a defining moment.
I was so intrigued by the book I asked my dad to take my to the site and we were able to go up the valley to the base of the dams. We even had the “privilege” of being chased off by a security guard. As we traveled the valley 27 years after the flood it was easy to see the floods aftermath. There were no trees along the creek bank, the homes were “new” (by Appalachian Standards) and the plaques along the road were reminders of what had been lost.
The Buffalo Creek Disaster is the story of what happens when the power of corporations and/or government go unchecked. Now, almost 10 years after graduation “The Buffalo Creek Disaster” still reminds me of the privilege we as lawyers have to stand-up against entities who make profits and earnings more important than people or the law.