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Mine Disasters in
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Buffalo Mining Company Retaining Dam Collapse
No. 5 Preparation Plant
Division of the Pittston Company

Saunders, Logan County, West Virginia
February 26, 1972
No. Killed - 125



Video: The Buffalo Creek Disaster



A coal refuse retaining dam near the mouth of Middle Fork, Saunders, Logan County, West Virginia, failed about 8 a.m., Saturday, February 26, 1972.

The dam failure released water, refuse, and silt into the valley traversed by Buffalo Creek and created havoc in the narrow valley.  The flooding resulted in the confirmed deaths of 125 persons, total destruction of 502 permanent home structures and 44 mobile homes, major damage to 268 additional permanent home structures and 42 mobile homes, and minor damage to 270 additional homes along Buffalo Creek from Saunders to Man, West Virginia, a distance of about 17 miles.

It was estimated that about 4,000 persons were left homeless.  Numerous homes in the Buffalo Creek area were located above the flood plane and they were not damaged.  A considerable number of displaced persons was able to obtain temporary refuge in these homes.  The flooding also destroyed about 1,000 automobiles and trucks, highway and railway bridges, sections of railroad tracks and the Macadam Highway, public utility power cables and poles, telephone lines and poles, and other installations.  Mine refuse, silt, and debris were scattered for miles along Buffalo Creek.  About 60 persons who resided in the Buffalo Creek area remain on the missing list.

None of the Buffalo Mining Company's personnel who were on duty at the time of the dam failure died or suffered serious injury because of the flooding.

General Information

The Buffalo Mining Company, Division of The Pittston Company, operates five underground mines, a strip mine, and two auger mines in the Buffalo Creek area near Saunders, West Virginia.  All coal from the mines is processed through a central preparation plant located on Buffalo Creek about 112-mile north of Middle Fork and the town of Saunders.

The initial mine in the area, No. 5, was opened in 1945 by the Lorado Coal Mining Company, and the preparation plant for this mine was begun in the fall of 1946 and completed in 1947.  Additional mines were opened in the general area thereafter by the Lorado Coal Mining Company and the successor companies.

The No. 5 mine and the coal properties of the Lorado Coal Mining Company were acquired by the Buffalo Mining Company in 1964, and the mines were operated by this company until June 1970 when the properties were acquired by The Pittston Company.  The size and facilities of the preparation plant were increased as required by the increase of the mine production and market conditions.  In February 1972, the preparation plant was operated two 7¼ hour shifts a day, 5 and 6 days a week. The plant processed about 5,200 tons of run-of-mine, raw, coal a day.  On an average daily basis, about 4,200 tons of clean coal was shipped from the plant and about 1,000 tons of refuse, approximately 20 percent of the raw coal, was removed as the raw product was processed through the preparation plant.  The refuse was transported to a storage bank on Middle Fork by means of 30-ton trucks and most of the refuse was used to make the retaining dams in the area.

The preparation plant utilizes a wet-cleaning process to remove refuse from the raw coal fed through the plant.  About 500,000 gallons of water a day was needed to operate the plant.  This water is replaced or clarified to keep the coal cleaning process working properly.  Until 1964, the effluent water was discharged into Buffalo Creek and replaced with clean water; however, because of water pollution regulations, the Buffalo Mining Company began pumping the effluent water from the preparation plant to retaining dam sites on Middle Fork in 1964.

The dam sites provided settling areas for the solid materials in the effluent water, and clear water was decanted from the ponds and reused in the plant.  The Lorado Coal Mining Company began dumping mine refuse from the cleaning plant in the mouth of Middle Fork valley about 15 years ago.  No effort was made to clear vegetation from the areas where the refuse was dumped, and the refuse bank grew in size and configuration as additional refuse was deposited in the valley.  The refuse bank extended upstream 1,500 feet and averaged 600 feet in width.

A retaining dam was developed from the refuse deposits in 1964, at which time effluent water was first pumped into Middle Fork.  In 1967, it was necessary to construct a second retaining dam. In 1970, the third retaining dam was completed, and the middle dam along with the first dam was used for age of clarified water.

In the early wet season of 1967, melting [snows] and heavy rains caused all streams in the area to rise, and water flowed over the tops of the unfinished second dam and the first dam and caused some damage in the basement of a home at the mouth of Middle Fork.

For many years, heavy rain and snowfalls in the January through March periods have normally resulted in some degree of flooding conditions throughout Southern West Virginia, particularly in the Buffalo Creek area.

After the dam failure, a profile taken of the upstream end of the upper dam indicates the depth of the water to have reached a height of 44 feet at the dam.  The amount of water estimated to have been impounded behind the upper dam was calculated to be approximately 130,000,000 gallons.  The watershed feeding into the impoundment was estimated to be 700 acres.

The amount of refuse material washed out of the upper, middle and lower dams, and from the burning refuse bank was estimated to be about 1,000,000 tons.

Story of the Retaining Dam Failure

The week preceding the dam failure was marked by heavy rainfall and thawing snow.  Unofficial measurements of rainfall during the 5 days preceding the retaining dam failure showed 3.84 inches of rainfall.  All the mines on Buffalo Creek were active the entire workweek, and mines of the Buffalo Mining Company were operated the 12 midnight to 8 a.m. shift, February 26, and these mines were scheduled for work on the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift, February 26.  Federal Coal-Mine Inspector Earl Reedy and Mario Varrassi, company safety engineer, drove by the refuse bank and retaining dams on a road parallel to the bank and dams enroute to the No. 5 mine on Tuesday and Wednesday, February 22 and 23, 1972.  Inspector Reedy observed that the bank and dams were stable and apparently in satisfactory condition. Reedy estimated that the water impounded upstream was about 15 feet below the top of the upper dam on Wednesday, February 23.

The water impounded by the upper dam continued to rise on Thursday, February 24, and Vice President Dasovich and Jack Kent, superintendent of the company's stripping operations, traveled to and examined the upper dam.  At 4 p.m., Thursday, February 24, Kent observed that the water was about 5 feet below the crest of the compacted portion of the dam. Kent placed a measuring stick 3 feet 9 inches in length at the lowest side of the dam to measure the rise of the water.

About 4 p.m., Friday, February 25, Kent returned to the dam and found that the water level had risen between 1 and 1½ feet according to the markings on the measuring stick.  During the late afternoon of February 25, heavy rains began to fall and such rain continued during most of the night. Kent thereafter visited the dam at 2-hour intervals and noted that the water was rising an inch per hour until 3:30 a.m., Saturday, February 26, at which time he observed that the water was rising 2 inches per hour.  Kent asked Dasovich to come to the dam, and an examination was made about 6 a.m., February 26.  During this examination, Kent observed that the rising water had covered the measuring stick and was about 1 foot below the compacted portion of the dam.  Many other company employees discussed in detail their visits to andlor by the dams on Friday and Saturday, February 25 and 26.

Other persons visiting the dams judged the impounded water behind the upper dam to be from 6 to 10 feet below the top on Friday evening and Saturday morning.  The judgments were made from cursory examinations or from walking on the dam.  These men did not use Kent's measuring stick or similar means to make their determinations.

Apparently no person or persons actually saw the initial failure of the upper dam.  Persons in three general locations discussed in detail events subsequent to the failure.

Various persons described their impressions of the explosion or explosions that occurred when the water reached the burning refuse bank.  It was apparent that large amounts of material had been released from the refuse bank, and soot and fine dust covered the immediate area, showing clearly that explosion forces had been released.

Summary

The conditions and practices discussed in this report were observed during surface examinations in the immediate area of the retaining dams and refuse bank. Other information was acquired from discussions with company officials and employees.  Such data are summarized as follows:
  • No one actually observed what occurred at the precise moment the upper dam failed, and whether portions of the dam failed first and the dam later collapsed or whether the water overflowed the dam likely will never be known.

  • Rumors of explosives being discharged at the dam and the dam being "blown up" by a person or persons unknown were unfounded.  The "assumed shooting cable" was the remains of a telephone system that was used to provide an outside communication line to the No. 5 mine.  The telephone system was rendered inoperative as a result of the inundation, and the shot holes were the remains of previous road construction work.

  • The retaining dams were inspected daily by the truck drivers and other employees and officials examined the dams periodically; however, a written record of such examinations was not made.  A particular employee or official was not instructed to make a regular examination of the dams for hazards.

  • Prior to the failure, a determination had not been made of the amount of water retained by the dams.

  • Vegetation was not removed in the water storage and refuse areas before dumping was begun, nor as the dumping was continued.

  • Materials, such as posts, half headers, wedges, and crib blocks, materials easily subjected to decaying and/or degradation action, were not removed from the refuse.  Consequently, such materials were found in the dam.

  • Reportedly, company officials did not contact State agencies to request permission to drain the impoundments or lower their water levels.

  • The dams were not continuously monitored during periods of high precipitation.

  • An emergency plan had not been formulated for negating the hazard of rising water and warning persons downstream of possible flooding.

  • Many persons downstream were not alarmed or unduly concerned when warned of the possible dam failure on Middle Fork and did not seek shelter at safe locations because dam failures and flooding did not occur during previous rainy seasons and similar warnings were given at such times.  The immensity of the refuse bank and dams likely convinced many people that serious flooding could not occur from Middle Fork.

  • An estimated 130 million gallons of water, silt, and about a million tons of refuse materials were displaced from the immediate vicinity of the dams.

  • Examination of the retaining dams revealed that adequate engineering practices were not being followed.  Other retaining dams located throughout the coal industry have been constructed by similar methods, and this is a prevalent practice.  It appears that sufficient engineering data on coal mine refuse type retaining dams is not readily available.

  • These retaining dams were constructed for the purpose of settling solid materials from effluent preparation plant water, which has been a practice used throughout the coal mining industry, mainly to comply with water pollution regulations.  Although other methods of clarifying effluent coal preparation plant water are available, even with such methods, the disposition of fine refuse remains a major problem.

Source:
Historical Summary of Mine Disasters in the United States - Volume II



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