On March 2nd, the Sludge Safety Project had an event, Remembering 40 Years of Black Water: From Buffalo Creek to Today, at the West Virginia State Capitol to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek Disaster and all victims of coal slurry. Despite stormy weather, over 40 West Virginians and allies gathered to remember and learn about the Buffalo Creek disaster, listen to personal stories of folks impacted by coal slurry, and hear wonderful music from Paige Dalporto, Michael and Carrie Kline, and Miranda Brown.
Mickey McCoy from Inez, KY opened by talking about the stunning impact of the Buffalo Creek Disaster throughout the Appalachian coalfields. He went on to describe how his hometown was also destroyed by the failure of a Massey Energy slurry impoundment in 2000. Mickey ridiculed the coal companies for their attempts to declare both disasters "Acts of God" and urged attendees to fight on. We then watched a portion of Appalshop's excellent film "Buffalo Creek: An Act of Man", filmed shortly after Pittston Coal Company's catastrophic slurry dam failure that killed 125 people and left thousands homeless. The images of the flood and interviews with residents were shocking and devastating, but equally shocking was the utterly unwillingness of the coal company, state and federal regulators and the Governor to follow the law or take responsibility for what happened.
A highlight was a powerful speech by Ken Hechler, legendary advocate for coal-impacted communities, who worked to secure relief for Buffalo Creek communities in 1972. Despite speaking from a wheelchair, his voice rang loud and clear through the Capitol as he declared, "I charge the Pittson Coal Company with murder!" He reminded the audience that it was up to the citizen's to rise up and force the necessary changes to prevent another Buffalo Creek. Our final speaker was Maria Lambert from Prenter, WV. Maria spoke powerfully of how the water in her community was poisoned by coal slurry and the devastating illnesses that have resulted. She held up test results showing huge levels of toxic heavy metals in her husband's body and demanded to know how they got there. She also wanted to know why not a single state legislator was in attendance. To hear from Maria, listen to this excellent radio piece from WMMT by Catherine Moore.
The evening closed with a candlelit circle and prayer led by Rev. Robin Blakeman. Recalling her own roots in Logan County, Rev. Blakeman prayed for the memory of those lost to slurry and asked for strength for all those gathered to continue the fight to protect West Virginia communities. Many thanks to everyone who participated and made the event possible. It was a great evening that renewed our commitment to banning slurry and making safer coalfield communities.