Centralia's extremes' researched

Susquehanna University scientific team


Staff Writer


CENTRALIA -- "Extreme environments" is a whole area of scientific study. 

Teams are researching the environmental effects of Antarctica's extreme cold and 
of the damp heat produced by Yellowstone Park's geysers.

The National Science Foundation has a separate "Life in Extreme Environments" 
program to underwrite this kind of work, which includes research to 
determine if there's life in outer space. 

Enter Centralia. 

"A lot of the extreme environments that are being studied have been that way for
 a very long time," said Dr. Tamara C. Tobin-Janzen, a biologist at 
Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove. "... Centralia is a very new environment. 
And it's changing - the fire is still expanding." 

Tobin-Janzen is a member of a team of six Susquehanna University scientists, 
headed by Dr. Benjamin R. Hayes from its geological and environmental 
sciences department, who have become fascinated by that unique aspect 
of Centralia's situation. 

Since the fire is expanding, the biologist explained, this allows the scientists to 
establish "time zero" - what's in place before the extreme conditions arrive - then
 to track in detail how heat changes the flora and fauna. 

The findings, the team hopes, will cast light on evolution from the time life first 
appeared on this planet when conditions were, well, hot and damp - not 
unlike Centralia today. 

Human hand evident

On site the other day, however, humankind's hand was clear. 

"This was someone's house," said Hayes, as he took soil samples on the site of one of
 the 545 buildings that once populated the Borough of Centralia, located
 in Columbia County about a mile north of Ashland on Route 61.

The underground blaze, started when a dump fire inadvertently set a coal vein 
alight in 1962, led to an exodus of the people who lived here, many of 
whom took advantage of a federal buyout to relocate. 

Fewer than 30 live here now, according to Mayor Lamar Mervine, although he 
added, "We get quite a few visitors." The mayor, a retired coal miner, said 
most of them come to look at, not study, the mine fire. 

For the scientists, the borough has become a second home in the year since they 
began the research. 

"I hope that this project goes to the end of my career," said Tobin-Janzen, a 
biology professor. "I'd be happy to keep studying Centralia." 

The research so far has been funded with a $95,000 grant from Merck, the 
pharmaceutical company that has offices in Danville. However, the team is 
seeking a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to 
continue the work for another five years. 

There are many things to document: soil temperature, ground-water levels, how 
smaller life forms adapt to the heat, and the path of the fire itself. 

"We're just tapping the tip of the iceberg," said Hayes. The fact that the borough
 once played home to 1,100 people never leaves his mind. 

"It's a sad thing to think about," the professor said, staring at what looks like a 
wooden grave marker planted in the ground. "You look at these pictures of 
parades they had here, all the people in the street." 

Once while the team was at work, a woman who had owned a nearby home came
 to give her relatives a tour. 

"She could point out where her flower bed was," he said. "It was pretty emotional 
for her." 

The thrill of discovery 

In addition to Hayes, Susquehanna University's geology department contributed 
Dr. Daniel E. Ressler. In addition to Tobin-Janzen, the biology department
 contributed Dr. Jack R. Holt II. From chemistry came Dr. 
Katherine Miller and Dr. Christopher P. Janzen, Tobin-Janzen's husband. 

So far, the group has found a wealth of interesting phenomena. 

Walking towards the hottest point, where steam hangs in the air, Hayes pointed to 
a patch on the ground of what looks like yellow moss: It's actually sulfur, 
carried up to the surface by steam. When it reaches the cooler air, it turns
 to crystal. 

Asked to cite the most exciting findings to date, Tobin-Janzen, noting that 
microbiology is her area of interest, picked the identification of a very 
common bacteria, genus bacillus. 

The very fact that it is common will allow any changes to be tracked, she said. 

Extreme environments, the biologist continued, "are thought to mimic very early
 earth environments; by looking at the types of adaptations these
 bacteria have, we can get an idea of basic structures of bacteria in primordial 

The chemistry of the area is also "really fascinating," she continued, citing how the 
fire has caused heavy ammonia concentrations, particularly near the vents,
 those iron pipes that stick out of the earth, placed there by the state
 Department of Environmental Protection to help prevent subsidence.

While ammonia will wipe out some microorganisms, Tobin-Janzen continued, 
others "can actually use things like ammonium as energy sources." 

Paradise, it isn't

Despite the excitement of scientific exploration, Centralia is less than a garden

"We can never work over here for too long," Hayes said, citing the heat and 
overpowering smell that hangs over the former population center. 

Stand too long in several spots - near the pipes, in particular - and the soles of 
your shoes will melt. Broken beer bottles have twisted into strange shapes. 

"It really burns off everything," said Hayes. 

Brush against the pipe accident, "you'll get a third-degree burn," he warned. 

"We wear respirators and mountain climbing gear," he said, in case anyone falls 

into the nearby stripping pit, where the fire heats the ground to 500 
degrees Fahrenheit. 

Ground temperature changes depending on where the fire burns. 

At one spot the other day, Ressler recorded a temperature of 90 degrees Celsius;
 8 feet away, the temperature is 140 degrees. 

"This fire just moves," said sophomore environmental science major Michelle Fuller,
 one of several Susquehanna students who can learn from 
participating in their professors' research. "You can watch it through the 

And where the fire moves, the ground suffers. Heat has cleared the area the 
group studies of much of its vegetation. 

"This is not a happy plant," said Ressler, pointing to a wood sorrell flower, withering
 a few feet from where a fresh crack has opened in the ground. 

Still, some of Sorrell has managed to stay green, while many trees and flowers 
have died. Another weed, called hen and chicks, grows wildly around the 

"One of the very interesting questions would be to see how more complex forms 
of life deal with (the fire)," said Tobin-Janzen. 

The smaller the life-form, the better equipped they are to cope with the fire,
 Ressler said. Bacteria can live for a long time in the soil, and some plants continue 
to grow. 

But raccoons and deer must move quickly through the area. 

Studying Antarctica is one thing, but the fact that Centralia is a man-made 
disaster adds relevance to the team's effort, said Hayes, who notes, in the 
end, the whole idea of scientific research is to solve problems. 

"We're interested in recovery," he said, in "what it takes to make things better."