A dam collapses in West Virginia on this day in 1972, flooding a valley and killing 118 people. Another 4,000 people were left homeless.
Coal mining was the chief industry in Logan County, West Virginia, in the 1970s. Such mining poses many environmental complications and first among them is safe disposal of the byproduct, known as tailings. If the tailings are dumped on hills, they can cause landslides. If placed in valleys, they can block streams and cause flooding.
In West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek Valley, tailings from area coal mines were used to dam Buffalo Creek. Tailings can however be unstable, especially in heavy rain. In February 1972, three days of rain exacerbated two small dam breaks that had occurred several years earlier. On February 26 at 8:01 a.m., the dam burst, unleashing a 20-foot wall of water that roared into the valley.
About 4,000 people were living in 17 towns and villages in Buffalo Creek Valley at the time. Hundreds of homes and buildings were swept away by the powerful flood. Though estimates of the death toll vary, it is believed that at least 118 people lost their lives. The Buffalo Mining Company, which was responsible for the tailings, was forced to pay $30 million in damages.