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May 2000
Volume 18, Number 5

Drowned by the State
William L. Anderson

When one thinks of "death by government," either those killed by armed members of the state or the millions who have perished in the vast gulags and prisons run by governmental agents usually come to mind. However, government has demonstrated far more creativity in eliminating people than just by shooting or starving them to death. It also has successfully drowned them while destroying property to the tune of billions of dollars. Here are a couple of horror stories.

Coal mining has been a staple of the West Virginia economy for more than a century, and the industry has been both a blessing and a curse for the people of that state. The mineral provides fuel for electric power plants and allows for people who wish to live in the mountains to have both employment and, for the most part, a middle-class income. On the other hand, coal mining is both dangerous and dirty. Thousands of coal miners in this country (not to mention worldwide) have died horrible deaths deep in the earth in coal mine explosions and have slowly asphyxiated from black lung disease. Deep mines produce both waste dirt (called tailings or slag) and acidic runoff which pollutes nearby streams and kills aquatic life. Surface or strip mining scars the landscape, destroys streams, and makes the mountains much less usable for other purposes.

In 1958, in answer to cries that coal mining wastes were polluting streams, the government of West Virginia ordered coal companies to build ponds to keep the acidic water from seeping into creeks and rivers. Mine tailings were an obvious choice to serve as fill for the dams which would hold back the bad water. The fish would be saved, and the bureaucrats were satisfied.

The story did not end happily ever after, however. At the Pittston Coal Company mines above Buffalo Creek, the company stacked three large ponds one after another, the water was held back by earthen dams made mostly from slag, which can be very unstable when wet. Residents of the communities built along Buffalo Creek had often expressed concerns to state officials and Pittston managers that the dams would be likely to collapse during a heavy rainfall.

Pittston officials and West Virginia bureaucrats refused to listen. After all, the well-being of the fish in Buffalo Creek was of paramount importance. On February 26, 1972, the dams gave way, and tons of water cascaded down 16 miles of narrow mountain valleys, killing 125 people and destroying more than 1,000 homes as the wall of black water devastated everything in its path.

The survivors blamed Pittston, while Pittston's attorneys said the tragedy was "an act of God." However, the real blame should be placed upon the State of West Virginia, which had ordered the unstable ponds to be constructed in the first place.

Another earthen dam break that occurred four years later did not even have the smokescreen of a private firm to be saddled with blame. The collapse of Idaho's newly-constructed Teton Dam in June, 1976, killed 11 people and more than 16,000 cattle, and left 25,000 people homeless. Government had more than its fingerprints on this disaster, as the fiasco belonged wholly to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Congress that ordered it.

This catastrophe began with lobbying by Idaho's potato farmers who demanded more water to allow them to expand growing operations in the arid lands. Congress authorized the dam to be constructed on the Snake River in 1974, and the Bureau began construction soon afterward. However, the site for the dam was characterized by unstable rock that was honeycombed by caves and fissures, making the area totally unsuitable for a dam.

The bureaucrats and politicians who were determined to see the project through, however, refused to consider another location (or not build the dam at all), even when confronted by overwhelming evidence that the dam should not be constructed at the original site. In October, 1975, the 300-foot-high dam was completed and engineers began to fill the reservoir.

For the most part, engineers add about a foot a day to a new reservoir in order to give the dam time to settle. In the case of the Teton Dam, however, the Bureau decided to fill the reservoir almost twice as quickly, making an unstable situation even worse. Less than six months after the new lake was filled, the inevitable disaster occurred. When the dam burst on June 5, 1976, 80 billion gallons of water carrying the energy of a 30 kiloton atomic bomb inundated Sugar City and Rexburg, Idaho, completely wiping Sugar City off the earth and nearly destroying Rexburg. The only reason that there was not more loss of human life was that the dam's collapse occurred during the day. Had it happened at night, it would have been one of the worst disasters in the history of the United States. It is ironic, however, that while many farmers and ranchers had their businesses and livelihoods ruined by the failure of the Teton Dam, the rushing waters failed to touch the potato farms the dam was supposed to help.

In both cases, the calamities had their roots in government. At Buffalo Creek, government agents were rightly concerned with water pollution. Their "pollution solution," however, was a far greater disaster than the loss of 100 streams.

At Teton, the disaster began when Congress listened to a special interest group instead of to common sense. Those in charge of construction of the dam were not stupid, although they might have been a bit overly optimistic. They pushed forward with the dam because the political classes wanted to garner more votes. In the end, innocent people lost their lives.

The tales of government ineptitude could go on endlessly. While the accounts of the Buffalo Creek disaster and the collapse of the Teton Dam are but two such tales of woe, these examples demonstrate what happens when politicians act to please narrow constituencies without taking into account the greater impact of their actions. The real problem is not one of the poor engineering of dams. Rather, it is one of the interminable arrogance of those who hold political power.


WILLIAM L. ANDERSON, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at North Greenville College.


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