Coal Ash Disasters

Coal Ash Disasters: Then and Now

While it was the December 2008 disaster in Kingston TN that woke this generation of Americans up to the dangers of coal waste, these dam failures have been going on for at least the past half century. What follows is a chronological history of disaster.

1966- Aberfan, Wales, UK- The dam of a coal refuse dump collapses early on a weekday morning. Tragically, the dump was situated uphill from a school which had just started its school day. 144 people died that day, including 116 children.


From a BBC article published the day after the disaster:

“Dilys Pope, aged 10, said, "We heard a noise and we saw stuff flying about. The desks were falling over and the children were shouting and screaming."

The deputy head teacher, Mr Beynon, was found dead. "He was clutching five children in his arms as if he had been protecting them," said a rescuer.

It seems incredible that after such a disaster -even if it did occur across an ocean- that there would ever be schools in this nation that would be located below a coal waste site. But there are. Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia is located directly below a pond.

Marsh Fork Elementary

1972- Buffalo Creek, West Virginia- One of the worst mining disasters in the US- coal waste from mining operations (similar to the coal combustion waste in ponds) was placed into the river, and then dammed. People lived in the narrow valley below the two dams where buffalo creek flowed. The dam burst after days of heavy rain killing 118 people, injuring 1,100 and leaving over 4,000 homeless. Pittson officials (the company that operated the mine) called the flood an "Act of God" and maintained that the dam was "incapable of holding the water God poured into it." Rev. Charles Crumm, a disabled miner from the Buffalo Creek area, testified before the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster, ". . . I never saw God drive the first slate truck in the holler. . . ." -- Pittston quote from Appalshop film, Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man and Crumm quote from Disaster on Buffalo Creek, 1972

Below is a moving clip from Appalshop's Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man

2000- Martin County, Kentucky A spill of coal ash released 306 million gallons of coal ash, which the EPA at the time called “one of the worst environmental disasters in the Southeastern United States”. The breach occurred when the ash broke into an old mine shaft beneath the dam and flooded out of closed mine openings into local creeks. Picture from Appalshop film Sludge about the Martin County spill.

 Martin County

2008- Kingston, Tennessee Unlike the disasters in 1966 and 1972, the dam failure at Kingston did not result in a loss of life. Though far larger than any previous disaster, it’s timing was miraculous- late at night in the dead of winter when no one was out on the river. Even so, three houses were destroyed, 28 damaged, and to this day the creek remains flooded with waste.

 Coal Ash Picture: House

For more information about coal ash:

  • Click here for overview of coal ash issues
  • Click here for video overview of coal ash issues
  • Click here for library of coal ash documents
  • Click here to return to issues page
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