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Unjust Desserts
From Buffalo Creek to Gaza

Contempt's consequences: Buffalo Creek, 1972

It’s called the Buffalo Creek Disaster. It happened on February 26, 1972, in Logan County, West Virginia — the prototypical Appalachian boondocks of rolling hills and forgotten hollows, except for those living there, and those being exploited there. Because it’s Appalachia, because it’s West Virginia, the exploiters were almost always the coal companies. In this case, Pittston Coal Co., one of the most immoral mining companies in business at the time, considering what it had done at Buffalo Creek.

The company knew that one of its coal slurry dams wouldn’t hold. It knew the pressure was building up. It knew thousands lived downstream. Pittston did nothing. It would have cost a few dollars to do something. It was simpler, as it often used to be and sometimes still is in the coal industry, to do nothing. Take a chance. On February 26, 1972, the dam broke, sending a 50-foot high wall of black waste water down on the dozen or two towns in Buffalo Creek Hollow, all of them coal mining communities. Saunders. Pardee. Lorado. All wiped out.

“There had been warnings. They had been ignored,” Ben. A. Franklin of the Times wrote the next day. “There is an enduring kind of strength in the fatalism of the Appalachian hill people. Endless vicissitude—coal mine disasters, unemployment, poverty, disease, hunger, politicians’ neglect—have conditioned them to expect the worst and, in expecting it, to struggle on. Many of the 4,500 miners and their wives and children who lived in and have now fled the narrow, 12-mile long valley of Buffalo Creek in the coal hills of Logan County will come back. Perhaps nearly all but the 89 known to have been swept from their beds and breakfast tables and pickup trucks eight days ago and drowned, and the other scores still missing and presumed dead. They will return knowing—as do others like them in hundreds of Appalachia coal mine hollows with weak, inherently unstable mine-waste impoundments looming above them—that such disasters are, for them, an inevitable part of life.”

By the time they’d all been counted the dead totaled 125, the injured more than 1,000, and 4,000 were homeless. Survivors sued Pittston for $257 million, eventually settling for less than $20 million. The state, too, sued the company for $100 million. But the governor at the time was Arch Moore, a young ambitious lawyer, a Republican who’d defied the state’s traditional Democratic leanings to win the governorship and become one of the state’s most corrupt politicians among a bevy of corrupt politicians. The week before he left office, he had the state settle with Pittston for $1 million after Pittston paid him a little something: Moore was big on bribes. In 1990 Moore pleaded guilty to five felonies, including extortion (he’d swindled coal companies out of hundreds of thousands of dollars—one swindler devouring another—for his campaign coffers) and obstruction of justice. He served almost three years in federal prison.

But what brought all this old story back to mind this week? It was this, a tale of equally stinky corruptions and indifference among those responsible for people’s welfare, and lost lives. From Australia’s The Age: “Further deadly sewage floods are feared after a wave of stinking waste and mud from a collapsed septic pool inundated a Gaza village, killing five people, including two babies. The collapse has been blamed on residents stealing sand from an embankment.” At Buffalo Creek, too, the blame was first assigned to the residents, because it’s never the structure itself that’s to blame, never the neglect that it represents, but the neglectfulness of the people who live around it to know better than to tempt fate. That’s how the corrupt indemnify themselves. The collapse, the Age wrote on, “highlighted the desperate need to upgrade Gaza’s overloaded, outdated infrastructure—but aid officials say construction of a modern sewage treatment plant has been held up by constant Israeli-Palestinian fighting.”

It’s not nearly the disaster that Buffalo Creek was, to be sure. It’s far worse. At Buffalo Creek it was a one-time event. In Gaza, the sewer collapse is just the tip of—well, not quite an iceberg, given the sludgy circumstances, but of a mountain of suffering, disease, poverty, death brought about by the dual folly Palestinians have to live with—the fanatic imbecility and corruption of their own rules, but mostly the barbarism of Israeli blockades, occupations, incursions—whatever the case may be on any given day. The difference between Gaza and Buffalo Creek of course is that the Gaza sewer story, so perfectly indicative of the barely got mentioned in the press at large. There won’t be civil suits. There won’t be recovered damages. There never has been. There’ll just be more of the same, literally and figuratively. The shit in Gaza’s streets is its latest unjust dessert.

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