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Posted August 1, 2000
In February, 1972, a high earthen dam, filled with coal muck, on the Middle Fork of Buffalo Creek, WV, was overtopped and collapsed, resulting in disastrous flooding that turned the hopes and dreams of a tight-knit, pre-flood downstream community into its worst nightmare. This book is a riveting, blow-by-blow account of the disaster and of the author's slow, methodical progress in building a strong legal case against the owners of the dam. Ultimately the coal company would settle a class action suit brought by the victims for $13.5 million, and thus avoid the negative publicity and savaged reputations that surely would have accompanied a public trial. In retrospect, construction of an inexpensive, overflow spillway to the 'dam' would probably have averted the tragedy. However, at corporate headquarters far away in New York City, management was focused on fulfilling production quotas and maintaining positive cash flow; concerns over safety and environmental issues down in 'Ole West Virgini' were not on its radar screen. I read the book in two sittings; I could not put it down. The next 'bombshell' adding more substance to the emerging trail of corporate indifference and complicity may be in the next paragraph or on the next page. The author skillfully portrays the David vrs. Goliath theme of the suit in which low-income, poorly educated, country folks are pitted against an entrenched coal industry with immense power in local and state affairs. As a young attorney, the author's initial curious interest in the case would grow into a powerful, strongly emotional commitment. Temporary setbacks were gut-wrenching, but new evidence and favorable judgments kept the suit moving forward, ratcheted up pressure on the other side, and enhanced his clients' chances for a just settlement. Prior to reading the book, this reviewer was already familiar with the Buffalo Creek disaster; it has been noted and briefly discussed in many earth science and environmental geology textbooks. The author's treatment of the geologic, hydrologic, and geotechnical aspects of the disaster were informative and well-researched although I would like to have seen a few more details and expert opinions devoted to these topics. Mining-related environmental disasters in recent years, such as the Marcocopper tailings disaster in the Philippines and failures of cyanide waste ponds associated with gold mining in Guyana and Romania have many elements in common with the Buffalo Creek disaster. Environmental advocates, mining executives, geotechnical professionals, and legal experts with interests in environmental protection and litigation would profit handsomely from reading this book.
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Posted February 15, 2014
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