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The Buffalo Creek Flood was a disaster that occurred on February 26, 1972, when the Pittston Coal Company's coal slurry impoundment dam #3, located on a hillside in Logan County, West Virginia, USA, burst four days after having been declared 'satisfactory' by a federal mine inspector.
The resulting flood unleashed approximately 132,000,000 US gallons (500,000 m3) of black waste water, cresting over 30 ft high, upon the residents of 16 coal mining hamlets in Buffalo Creek Hollow. Out of a population of 5,000 people, 125 were killed, 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless. 507 houses were destroyed, in addition to forty-four mobile homes and 30 businesses. The disaster also destroyed or damaged homes in Lundale, Saunders, Amherstdale, Crites, Latrobe and Larado. In its legal filings, Pittston Coal referred to the accident as "an Act of God."
Dam #3, constructed of coarse mining refuse dumped into the Middle Fork of Buffalo Creek starting in 1968, failed first, following heavy rains. The water from Dam #3 then overwhelmed Dams #2 and #1. Dam #3 had been built on top of coal slurry sediment that had collected behind dams # 1 and #2, instead of on solid bedrock. Dam #3 was approximately 260 feet above the town of Saunders when it failed.
Two commissions investigated the disaster. One, the Governor's Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry, appointed by Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr., was made up entirely of members sympathetic to the coal industry or government officials whose departments might be complicit in the genesis of the flood. After Arnold Miller, then president of the United Mine Workers, and others were rebuffed by Gov. Moore regarding their request that a coal miner be added to the commission, a citizen's commission assembled to provide an independent review of the disaster. The Governor's Commission of Inquiry report  called for legislation and further inquiry by the local prosecutor. The report  by the Citizen's Commission concluded the Buffalo Creek-Pittston Coal Company was guilty of murdering at least 124 men, women and children. Additionally, the chair of the Citizen's Commission, Norman Williams, the Deputy Director of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, called publicly and in testimony before the legislature for the outlawing of coal strip mining throughout the state. He testified that strip mining could not exist as a profit making industry unless it is allowed by the state to pass on the costs of environmental damage to the private landowner or the public.
The state of West Virginia also sued the company for $100 million for disaster and relief damages, but Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. settled for just $1 million, three days before leaving office in 1977. The lawyers for the plaintiffs, Arnold & Porter of Washington, D.C., donated a portion of their legal fees for the construction of a new community center. West Virginia has yet to build the center, though it was promised by Governor Moore in May 1972.
Gerald M. Stern, an attorney with Arnold & Porter, wrote a book entitled The Buffalo Creek Disaster about representing the victims of the flood. It includes descriptions of his experiences dealing with the political and legal environment of West Virginia, where the influence of large coal mining corporations is intensely significant to the local culture and communities. Sociologist Kai T. Erikson, son of distinguished psychologist and sociologist Erik Erikson, was called as an expert witness and published a study on the effects of the disaster entitled Everything In Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood (1978). Erikson's book later won the Sorokin Award, granted by the American Sociological Association for an "outstanding contribution to the progress of sociology."
Simpson-Housley and De Man (1989) found that, 17 years later, the residents of Buffalo Creek scored higher on a measure of trait anxiety in comparison to the residents of Kopperston, a nearby mining town that did not experience the flood.
Dennis Prince and some 625 survivors of the flood sued the Pittston Coal Company, seeking $64 million in damages ($292 million in 2011 dollars). They settled in June 1974 for $13.5 million, or approximately $13,000 for each individual after legal costs ($59.3 thousand each in 2011 dollars). A second suit was filed by 348 child survivors, who sought $225 million; they settled for $4.8 million in June 1974.
On their 2001 release White Blood Cells, The White Stripes song "This Protector" alludes to the Buffalo Creek Disaster from the federal mine inspector point-of-view, through lyrics such as "300 people living out in West Virginia/have no idea of all these thoughts that lie within ya".