Buffalo Creek Disaster Summary (Gerald M. Stern)

Buffalo Creek Disaster Summary (Gerald M. Stern)

This book is particularly significant in the aftermath of the Teton Dam disaster in Idaho this past June. For the flood that followed the collapse of West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek Dam in 1972—like the one in Idaho—was a manmade “natural disaster.” It killed 125 people and left hundreds of coal miners and their families homeless, disoriented for life. The Teton Dam was a Government project, while the Buffalo Creek Dam was erected by a private corporation. “The Buffalo Creek Disaster” shows in treat detail how the corporation was forced to pay for its destructive negligence. Thus, the book may be an omen of the scores of similar legal and political confrontations that are bound to occur over the next decade.

Gerald Stern, who was the Buffalo Creek survivors’ lawyer, quotes depositions and interviews that make it clear the tragedy could have been averted if the New York‐based Pittston Company, whose wholly owned subsidiary the Buffalo Mining Company built the dam, had been as concerned with safety as it was with profits. The Buffalo Creek Dam had been maintained in violation of Government safety standards—in this case, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety laws passed in April 1970. For four years, the Pittston Company had ignored warnings from local people and some mine safety experts that the structure was urtsotind. Even after the disaster, Pittston’s officials tried to wriggle free of any sense of corporate responsibility by insisting that the flood was an “act of God”

Though the book is poorly organized, its dramatic tension revolves around the issue of survivors’ settlements. Mine owners had long been accustomed to paying relatively low sums after disasters. Clearly, they don’t want the tradition tampered with. After the Buffalo Creek disaster, Pittston sought to avoid a trial that would spotlight their own culpability and told the West Virginians they would receive the same benefits whether or not they hired a lawyer.

But the miners had connections at the prestigious Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter, where Stern was a partner. Another of the firm’s lawyers, Harry Huge, had just won a settlement of $11.5 million for widows and orphans who had been bilked by the United Mine Workers’ pension fund. Now Stern, who had been a civil rights lawyer in the early 1960’s and was serving his obligatory stint as the firm’s “public interest partner,” was eager to take the Buffalo case. Arnold & Porter agreed to take the case on a contingency‐fee basis. That frightened the Pittston Company. For months afterwards its lawyers tried, unsuccessfully, to prove that Arnold & Porter were ambulance chasers—that the firm had solicited the case.

After spending some time with the survivors, Stern became committed to the theory that Pittston was responsible for his clients’ psychological suffering as well as their loss of property and life, and that the company should pay them appropriate compensation. He might have produced a minor masterpiece if he’d translated that insight into his writing: if he’d focused on his clients instead of wedging their stories into short chapters between rather tedious expositions of legal maneuvers. Still, there are some passages in the book that reveal the horrors of the flood.

In one vignette, he describes Roland Staten, a miner who managed to jump off his house when it was carried away by rushing waters, holding on to his son. His 5½‐month pregnant wife was trapped. In his deposition to Stern, Staten recalled, “When I looked back and saw her she said, ‘Take care of my baby.’… That’s the last time I saw her.”

Now he must live with the unrelenting, guilt‐provoking knowledge that he couldn’t even fulfill that request. Moments later, he said, he was still hanging onto the boy but the water was rushing so fast, “I was thrown from side to side and crushed—my insides was crushed so hard that it just seemed my eyeballs was trying to pop out, and my breath, I couldn’t get my breath at all. Somewhere along there I lost that boy of mine. I don’t know where. By that time he had stopped screaming and drunk so much water and everything—I don’t know what happened to him.”

As the flood waters carried survivors along that Saturday morning, they saw corpses everywhere. And, in the shattered houses, they lost the treasured memorabilia of the community where their relatives had lived for centuries—photos, scrapbooks, a child’s rattle: possessions that have no assessable value but whose loss can produce a devastating psychological effect.

Eventually the case was settled out of court. Tacitly accepting the argument that the flood had caused mental suffering, Pittston agreed to an overall payment of $13.5 million, which was divided among those who had lost kinfolk or property in the flood and those who had suffered psychological damage. (It would be useful to know the exact criteria by which the money was distributed, and very important to know whether the survivors wrangled over the settlement, but Stern doesn’t focus on either of those questions.) Thus, Pittston was unable to treat the disaster as “an act of God” and placate desolate, powerless people with meager settlements. And the company was forced to pay for the mental anguish it had caused. Two crucial principles were affirmed.

These principles may apply to some of the 30,000 survivors of the Teton Darn disaster, too, especially since environmentalists and engineers had warned against the construction of that dam ever since it was first proposed. The case will be somewhat different since the information that has emerged so far suggests that the dam’s sponsors were state and Federal officials, not a corporation. Moreover, it may be difficult for the survivors to find a lawyer like Stern or a firm like Arnold & Porter to represent them.

Still, “The Buffalo Creek Disaster” suggests that if skilled lawyers take such cases, they could have the same importance as the civil rights trials of the 1960’s or the post‐Watergate trials of the 1970’s. For Stern’s book shows that people like Roland Staten, his wife and son were the victims of crimes against ecology. At least nine months before the flood both the man who was directly in charge of the Buffalo Creek mining operation and the man who was Pittston’s top corporation counsel knew about the violations of mine safety standards, exchanged memoranda about the problem, yet failed to act. They wanted to save the corporation Money and to avoid inconvenience. Shouldn’t they—like their counterparts who build outlaw dams, oil refineries, nuclear storehouses in spite of repeated, well‐documented warnings that they’re unsafe—be punished?

Of course, they should pay handsome settlements to people whose lives they wreck. But, judging from the arrogant, lofty attitude Pittston’s officials take throughout “The Buffalo Creek Disaster,” It seems possible that the only effective deterrent is to treat them like common criminals. For that is the way they appear in this shocking, timely book. 

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