MAN, W.Va. (AP) — The day before the disaster, Perry Harvey went fishing in Buffalo Creek for a reason.
“There was a golden trout there that I was trying to catch,” he said.
Did he get it? “Nope.”
The next morning, his wife’s birthday, Harvey was on his way to get some cake, but the police blocked the road. Miles away, a coal company’s hillside check dams collapsed, sending thunderous slurry down and into the hollow, flooding small communities and killing 125 people.
For decades after that, fishing of any kind was no longer an option on the southern West Virginia waterway.
The makeshift dam had collapsed after several days of heavy rain, releasing black water estimated at 132 million gallons (600 million liters). Rescue operations were slowed as roads, bridges and railways were destroyed or blocked. National Guard helicopters picked up survivors and delivered supplies.
The current rose so high that it covered the telephone poles. In addition to the dead, the disaster injured 1,100 and left more than 4,000 people homeless.
As locals gather this weekend on the 50th anniversary of one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, they too can revel in a throwback.
Buffalo Creek, whose habitat has been destroyed along a 17 mile (27 kilometer) stretch, is teeming with trout, after a steady and coordinated effort by Harvey and others to salvage what they once had and the share with future generations.
“My father and my brothers were all fishermen and miners,” Harvey said. “I liked it when I was little.”
He said the adults decided that if they involved the kids “they wouldn’t be as likely to come out and start worrying about doing drugs or drinking and stuff like that”.
Long after the disaster of February 26, 1972, the poison stream had no life. Dredging by the US Army Corps of Engineers helped but did nothing to support trout habitat.
In 2005, the ecosystem suffered another blow when water leaked from an abandoned coal mine, turning the creek green. That year, the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association was formed. State regulators sued the mine owner. The association used the settlement money to begin repairing the creek.
“That’s the year we really got started,” Harvey said.
Boulders donated by another mine operator were strategically placed in the creek. The association has purchased habitat structures to help form the pools the trout prefer.
Volunteers picked up trash around the creek. Local high school students were bussed in, helping them complete the 40 hours of community service required to graduate.
After its pH level and temperature were checked, the creek was returned to the Natural Resources Division’s trout stocking program in 2006 after a 34-year hiatus. Restockings now take place several times a year.
“I love it,” said Jacob Turkale, 25, who caught a rainbow trout on Tuesday. “I have been fishing here for almost 17 years. I don’t want to fish anywhere else.
The association will hold its annual fishing event for children in April, giving away 125 fishing rods, reels and other fishing gear.
But the disaster will never be forgotten. On Saturday, the victims were remembered at the same high school that served as a temporary morgue 50 years ago.
Harvey’s house was barely spared. When the deluge receded, he saw bodies along the long march to check on relatives, images that were seared into the veteran’s mind.
“It brings back old memories of being in Vietnam,” he said.
Barbara Brunty watched from higher ground with her 3-year-old daughter as their home was swept away with the girl’s Christmas gifts: a toy motorbike, kitchen set and a Chatty Cathy doll.
That summer, Brunty wept in fear with every storm and strong gust of wind that rocked his temporary trailer. Eventually, she and her husband, Arthur, rebuilt in the same location as the old house.
“We’re going to live here as long as he works here,” she said, adding that without the dam, “we could be here safely.”
The state filed a $100 million lawsuit against the owner of the Pittston Coal mine; then-Gov. Arch Moore agreed to a $1 million settlement at the end of his second term. A separate settlement for survivors was approximately $13,000 per claimant.
Pittston announced in 1999 that he was leaving the coal business.
Jack Spadaro, mine safety investigator and environmental specialist, is on a mission to prevent such disasters from happening again. He was heavily involved in drafting federal regulations and enhanced criteria for coal waste dam construction and maintenance.
Spadaro also wrote most of the state report debunking Pittston’s claim that the disaster was an “act of God”. An investigation revealed that the company had built the dam on top of a coal slurry that had been deposited by an earlier dam, and then more material was added to it.
“It only took 15 minutes to totally fail,” Spadaro said. “And people died instantly when that tidal wave went through the valley.”
In eastern Kentucky in 2000, the bottom of a coal tank ruptured in an abandoned underground mine, flooding two streams and poisoning a water source. In 2012, a section of embankment under construction collapsed into a coal slurry pond in northern West Virginia. A bulldozer slid into the pond and its driver died.
The United States Mine Safety Health Administration lists 570 activated carbon tanks across the country. West Virginia has the most with 108. Kentucky has 102. The MSHA said 49 retainers pose a significant hazard due to potential damage from failure.
There is also the risk of environmental damage from coal ash, the toxic wastewater left over from burning coal in power plants. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered utilities to stop dumping waste into unlined storage ponds and to accelerate plans to close coal ash sites that are leaking or otherwise unsafe.
The Buffalo Creek that survives today is calm in some places and fast flowing in others, its rapids gurgling. The water is calm in the basins where the trout like to hide.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since that happened,” Harvey said. “But it brings back memories. I remember it like it was yesterday.”