On Feb. 26, 1972, a wave of coal waste and water roared down Buffalo Creek in West Virginia, killing 125 people and leaving 4,000 people homeless. Pittston Coal Co. knew its dam was failing, but warned no one.
On the 40th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek tragedy, ponder this: Kentucky has 270 high-hazard dams or impoundments but nothing that requires emergency action plans from the owners and operators.
Kentucky is one of just 10 states that have no emergency action plan requirement.
High-hazard dams are those where failure could cause a loss of human life or substantial damage to private or public property.
If Kentucky required the plans, there would be protocols for notifying authorities when a dam shows signs of failure. The public and emergency responders would have maps of where there would likely be flooding. Without the plans, warnings and evacuations will be haphazard or too late.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the American Society of Civil Engineers recommend requiring emergency action plans from dam owners.
But despite repeated attempts in the legislature, and Kentucky's own wake-up call when a Massey Energy coal-waste impoundment in Martin County failed, nothing has been done.
The Martin County spill in 2000 released twice as much coal waste and water as the Buffalo Creek flood. No one died or was injured, probably because the water exploded from a mine portal leading to a creek along which few people lived, while the toxic residue from coal-washing escaped through another portal and oozed into yards and gardens along a heavily populated creek bottom.
There was no warning from the coal company to residents on either creek.
The coal industry operates 105 of Kentucky's high-hazard impoundments.
After the Martin County spill, the industry was urged to adopt safer methods for dealing with waste from mining and processing coal.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers obtained $2 million for a study of safer alternatives, such as using a filter press technology to dry the waste for disposal, eliminating the need to hold huge amounts of water behind earthen dams at the heads of populated hollows.
Despite the availability of safer technologies, Kentucky has permitted seven new coal slurry impoundments since 2000.
After the Martin County spill, two Eastern Kentucky lawmakers sponsored legislation requiring emergency action plans. The state cabinet that's responsible for dam safety supported the legislation, and it was approved by the House in 2009, shortly after a TVA coal-ash impoundment failed in Tennessee.
The coal industry, which had promised its support, balked and insisted on deleting a mandate that state regulators review the emergency plans for adequacy. A Senate committee complied with the industry's demand. Backers of the bill then dropped their support because removing the review gutted the legislation.
None of the hundreds of bills under consideration in this session of the legislature are about dam safety.
Coal industry engineering and regulation have greatly improved since Buffalo Creek. But the best systems can fail. When they do, there's no substitute for early warning and a quick, coordinated response.
No one should have to die before Kentucky finally acts.