Buffalo Creek Disaster- HOW


Added by jfabbett, last edited by jfabbett on May 09, 2008  (view change)

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Overview

The dispute was resolved by three settlements. The first suit was brought by 625 victims and was settled in June 1972, costing Pittston Coal Company $13.5 million. The second lawsuit, representing the 348 children, was settled in June 1974, awarding $4.8 million. Long-term psychological trauma was a major negotiating point in these settlements. The Citizens Commission argued that there was a direct link to the accident that occurred on February 26, 1972 and the plaintiff's mental illnesses. The Commission then argued that Pittston was liable for these illnesses. Pittston Coal attacked each one of the plaintiffs' allegations and effectively lowered the settlement. The third suit was brought against Pittston by the State of West Virginia for disaster relief and was settled for $1 million. The Governor scrapped his proposed super highway using federal disaster money because of local and national media pressure; however, the land that was bought in order to build the highway was never given back to the victims. Instead the land was used to build a smaller highway through the county. 

Citizen's Commission

From the communities' standpoint, the settlements were a bittersweet victory. The amount of money received by the victims was more than most had ever seen in their lives. The $13.5 million was much less than the $32.5 million they originally proposed to settle for but significantly larger than the $3 million Pittston originally proposed. This amount was also dramatically more than the $10,000 maximum for a wrongful death suit in the state of West Virginia. However, the victims lost family members and their homes. Also most of these people suffered from mental illnesses after the disaster, mainly "shell shock" cases.

The victims did not win a victory that led to substantial changes in safety of coal-waste dams. The United Mine Workers, quoted in the Charleston Gazette, said that payment of at least "$50 million" would have been needed in order for Pittston to stop practicing coal-waste dams. This amount would be needed in order for Pittston to fear the threat of another disaster because of the amount needed to compensate the victims would financially hurt the company. The workers union did not pick up the dispute as a cause to be supported with its influence because most of the victims were women and children who were not part of the union. The union's lack of support limited the publicity and the resources available to fight the case against Pittston. The Citizen's Commission would have needed the full support and funding from the United Mine Workers in order to have a chance at changing the practice of coal-waste dams in West Virginia. Support from the United Mine Workers was minimal because of the fear that driving up costs for the mines would lead to lay-offs which would have been devastating to a number of families.

In a calculated move by Stern, the charges by the Citizens Commission were brought against Pittston Coal Company in federal court instead of against Buffalo Creek Mining in state court. Many negotiation meetings took place in Manhattan, headquarters for Pittston Coal Company, and in Washington, DC, where the law firm of Arnold and Porter had its offices. The decision to go after Pittston in federal courts instead of suing the previous mine owner, Buffalo Creek Mining, in state courts seemed to be the right decision considering the perceived corruption in the state judicial system. The Governor had tight control over the state's judicial system as he had appointed many judges to their positions. The Governor was largely seen by the Charleston Gazette to favor mining companies, and in 1990 he pleaded guilty to five felony charges of corruption including bribery, obstruction of justice and illegal campaigning. In 1990 he also confessed to taking an unknown monetary payment from Pittston Coal for the settlement of the West Virginia's case against Pittston. The decision to go to federal court was to Pittston's disadvantage because this meant the focus was on them rather than on Buffalo Creek Mining.

The Citizens Commission found support in the local papers including the Charleston Gazette. The Charleston Gazette caught the publics interest in the disaster, which eventually led to Arnold and Porter taking the case as pro bono work. The media attention also helped apply pressure to Governor Moore, who was up for re-election, to halt his efforts to build a super highway through the disaster area using federal money earmarked for disaster relief.

Pittston Coal Company

Although Pittston did not emerge victorious, they effectively controlled the situation from the beginning. Pittston acquired the support of Governor Moore, who closed the disaster area to reporters, mitigating the damages to Pittston. After the dam failure, the Pittston Coal Company spokesman was often quoted as saying the disaster was "an act of God." Following this statement, the company was silent, limited the chances of receiving bad press. The "act of God" statement did raise the question in the minds of many that this was indeed a natural disaster. Pittston would not have needed to warn the citizens because they were closely monitoring the water level and the dam's stability. If the failure of the dam was caused by a natural disaster, then Pittston would not have been liable for any wrongdoing. However, this was later proved not to be the case.

Pittston also made effective use of its financial wealth. They were able to buy off some of the expert witnesses the Citizens Commission had expected to testify for them as well as set up a special division of lawyers to deal with these cases. The lawyers stonewalled for some time, pressuring Arnold and Porter who was getting paid on contingent-fees to settle quickly and not to the best of terms.

Most of the media attacks stayed at the local level, and the management of Pittston was sheltered from them in Manhattan and did not feel pressured to act. Pittston also was the largest coal producer in the country and had recently secured a major long-term coal contract with the Japanese. Pittston's customers did not have the flexibility or the choice to pressure Pittston into acting.

Analysis

Under the circumstances, settling the cases out of court was a much better decision than litigating. Going to court would have put the Citizens Commission at a disadvantage because it had lost a couple of key expert witnesses including the climatologist who documented the rainfall leading up to the dam failure because he wanted unreasonable demands to testify. The climatologist could have given testimony saying that the rainfall leading up to the dam failure was not an unusual amount of rain for February thus belittling Pittston's natural disaster claim. For Pittston Coal Company, the settlements were larger than originally expected. During the settlement negotiations, there was a supposed leak that Mr. Camicia, the president of Pittston, had said that $10 million would not harm the company financially. If this were true, the settlements, which totaled over $19.3 million, did hurt the company but not enough to force them to alter their mining practices.

Lessons have been learned from what has happened to Buffalo Creek. Coal-waste dams are no longer in use in large part because of the attention that the Buffalo Creek disaster has brought to that mining practice. Today mining is not without its dangers. Thanks to mining safety regulations over the last thirty years, mining has become much safer for the miners as well as the neighboring communities. Dams as well have received much more scrutiny over the last thirty years in their construction and in their resistance to withstand natural phenomenon. Corporate culture of large businesses has also changed for the better. Large corporations now take into consideration their stakeholders safety in large part because they are liable for the damages associated with their business practices. Environmental advocates have also learned a great deal from this disaster. They have recognized the importance of community organizing and the benefits and limitations of gaining media attention. Community organizers also can see the importance of working with large law firms with a great deal of resources because without them their efforts may fall to the way side.

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