No two words carry more drama and pain in the coalfields. They symbolize all the dangers of surface mining. They speak
of the callous attitude the mines sometimes show towards those who live nearby. On February 26, 1972, a dam constructed of coal waste broke loose near the head of Buffalo Creek. The poorly constructed dam was holding back a lake of water used for cleaning coal. The lake was perched between two hills. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of black water rushed down the valley like a tidal wave. The death toll totaled 125. Hundreds of homes were swept away.
Now residents of the coalfields use "Buffalo Creek" to express their fears of possible floods from the ponds at the ends of valley fills. Others fear a collapse of similar dams made of coal waste that hold back large ponds of cleaning water in places like Laurel Creek, Ragland and Lick Creek. The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was enacted as a result of Buffalo Creek. The federal and state laws are supposed to prevent any more deadly floods. So far no dams such as the one at Buffalo Creek have broken. However, more and more coalfield residents believe that the valley fills are exacerbating floods.
The only part of the creek that was spared in the flood was that above the dam. It doesn't have a name, but the small group of houses and churches at the head of the hollow has been home to the Gibson and Osborne families for a century.
In the 1890s, the Gibson and Osborne ancestors sold the rights to the timber and minerals on and under their land for a few hundred dollars. Today the houses in the picture and the others in the hollow sit above coal seams worth millions of dollars. Most of the men in the Gibson and Osborne families worked in underground mines. Now some are too disabled to work.
In the mid-1980s, Peabody Coal's Eastern Associated mine began deep mining under the Buffalo Creek community. Within a few years, most of the wells went dry. The mine paid to have some drilled. But other residents had to spend $3,000 or $4,000 for a new well and filter system to keep out the iron and sulfur contamination.
More recently wells dried up at the church where Calvin Gibson preaches and at his late father's house across the creek. For several years, Gibson tried to get the mine to drill wells. Finally, he appealed to the Division of Environmental Protection in the summer of 1997. The mine maintained it hadn't come close enough to the properties to cause the wells to go dry. But finally in December 1997, DEP ordered the mine to drill the wells. A small, but significant victory for this seemingly forgotten community.
Down the creek about eight miles towards Man, residents won another small victory. But first they suffered through a flood that recalled the disaster of 1972. About a mile behind Cartwright Hollow is a large valley fill from an Arch Coal Inc. mine. When hard rains fell in late June and early July, flood waters rose to five feet by the Mounts' home at the mouth of the hollow. When the waters receded, piles of coal remained in the yards. Residents said their photos and videos showed the settling ponds weren't maintained properly, and the valley fill was not properly benched. Inspectors from the DEP refused to cite the mine. Instead they blamed much of the flooding on a timbering operation on the adjacent mountain.
"Just as it was not an 'Act of God' that killed those 125 people, 'Mother Nature' is not responsible for this recent flooding as your own DEP inspector and the local media would have us believe. It was Arch, combined with the negligence of your agency," Terry and Kristi Mounts wrote DEP Director John Caffrey. At their request, the federal Office of Surface Mining conducted an investigation. The mine was eventually cited with a violation.
Valley fill at Arch mine above Cartwright Hollow