The failure of buffalo creek

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We live in a large complex society in which we rely on experts to be knowledgeable to carry out the tasks that people have prescribed to them to do. In addition, we have laws, regulations, and governmental bodies to provide legal action to those who are criminally negligent and to act as an inspector of sort when regulating certain activities. But what happens when experts fail in their duties and the government fails to live up to its obligations of protecting the people? With years of warning and fear over impoundment dams, failed governmental audits, and an inhumane and disgusting aftermath, these failures happened to Buffalo Creek.

According to the story by Tom Price in Rolling Stone entitled “Who Killed Buffalo Creek?” the day of February 25th, 1972 was a change for the people of Buffalo Creek as they had been experiencing severe storms with heavy rains. During that time people had evacuated the area in fear that the impoundment dams, put in place by Pittston Co.'s Buffalo Mining facility as a water filtration system for environmental controls, might fail and flood the valley. From the description on the UT module for Buffalo Creek from coalimpoundment.org and the Tom Price article, and impoundment dam is constructed from remnant coal waste and is used to filter water so that it can be reused by coal mining plants. Two points of failure for these dams are seepage, and weakness of walls. (Price)

During the night of the 25th, the weather changed again with more rain falling in the area, filling the impoundment dams to the top. The next morning Dam number three, the highest dam, failed due to supersaturating and caused a succession of failures in the two dams below it, which ultimately ended up flooding the valley below, destroying homes and killing people in the process.

Afterwards the area was designated a disaster area and prior residents were not able to rebuild or clean up their property as the area was heavily guarded. While the US Army Corps of Engineers cleaned up the disaster, the victims were relocated to trailer parks where they could live for a year rent free.

One might be asking at this point why the fears of the dam breaking were never addressed. As it turns out, the issues of impoundment dams had been addressed through laws and regulations, but never enforced correctly. Laws and agencies were set in place to evaluate the safety and construction plans for dams, but there was never any inspection of construction by these agencies by themselves or third parties after plans were approved. This is a serious quality control failure by the body in charge of regulating these dams, the West Virginia Public Service Commission. Because no serious audit of the physical construction took place, Pittston in reality could submit a plan that looked good on paper and then later build something entirely different and possibly not safe. If these control audits and inspections would have taken place, the likelihood of this disaster could have been greatly diminished.

The governmental agencies involved in this disaster should not take the full blunt of the criticism. We must ultimately it is the lawbreaker who is to blame. Pittston Company, by failing to meet the safety and construction standards of their dams, not only placed their employees at risk, but the entire valley and other waterways near Buffalo Creek. The laws called for weekly inspections of their dams. According to the Tom Price article “the Pittston Company [had] no records of records of regular inspections of their dams” (Price) mostly because official maps submitted to regulators negligently omitted the dams (Price). This seems to suggest the fact that Pittston was trying to cover up its unsafe dams. By being this reckless, Pittston endangered the communities near the dam. However, safety seems to be a non-issue for this company since in a two year span 5358 health and safety violations were issued with fines that totaled $1,152,725 (Price), of which at the time of the Tom Price article none had been paid.

This story is very striking in that it is very similar to events that happened during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. During the storm three floodwalls failed and devastated parts of New Orleans. The failure was primarily thought to have been caused by the storm surge, but later investigation showed that it could have prevented (Warrick). Problems with two of the canals were the problems of soft soil beneath the pilings that “saturated and began to shift under the weight of relatively modest surges from the lake.” (Warrick) This is similar to the saturation problem that caused Dam 3 to fail at Buffalo Creek, although the dams at Buffalo Creek had no reinforcements to strengthen them.

Like Buffalo Creek, the evidence suggests that there was prior knowledge of failure. At Buffalo Creek geologist William Davies said that the piles that made the dams were “stable but could be overtopped and breached,” after investigating a failure of a slate bank near Buffalo Creek in 1966 (Warrick). The failure of the levees from Katrina follows the same pattern. Testing of soil by the Army Corps of Engineers found that the soil was soft and “designed a concrete-and-steel floodwall anchored to the earth by steel pilings driven to a depth of 20 feet.” (Warrick)

The depth of the pilings became an issue during a lawsuit in 1994 in which Pittman Construction Company documented “that floodwall sections were failing to line up properly because of unstable soils” (Warrick). The claim was “dismissed on technical grounds” and “without specifically addressing the allegations about weak soils.” Even though the claim was rejected legally, the legality of a claim does not pertain in some cases that the claim is true, therefore this claim did warrant further investigation.

After this brief study of the events at Buffalo Creek and New Orleans in 2005, it becomes clear where ethics violations can happen. Violations can happen through the entities in charge of enforcing laws by not reviewing and punishing violators in a timely and reasonable manner, through blatant omissions to get around regulations and safety, and by not following up on documented claims and evaluating their validity. Although things can be overlooked, when engineers, government agencies, and companies act responsibly and ethically, the chances of man made disasters are drastically reduced.

Price, Tom. “Who Killed Buffalo Creek.” 3 Jan 1974. Rolling Stone. 13 Feb 2010

< http://users.starpower.net/t.price/STONE.htm>

Warrick, Joby, and Michael Grunwald. “Investigators Link Levee Failures to Design

Flaw.” 24 Oct. 2005. The Washington Post. 13 Feb 2010

< http://www.washingtonpost.com>

“What Are Impoundments?” Coal Impoundment LIS. 13 Feb 2010

< http://www.coalimpoundment.org/aboutimpoundments/what_are_they.asp>