By Jason Zasky
Used by permission of Failure Magazine. Copyright (c) 2001 Failure Magazine.
All Rights Reserved.
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THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE
A sign of the times in Centralia, PA [photo: © 2001 Failure magazine]
Today, the first thing you notice when entering Centralia is just how quiet it is. A handful of narrow housessome occupied, most abandonedare scattered over the grid of empty streets. On many of the vacant lots, the grass has been neatly mowed beside a driveway that extends to nowhere. Near one intersection an imposing yellow sign reads, "Public Alert: Area subject to mine subsidence and toxic gas emissions." Nevertheless, the area doesn't look all that dangerous. The only tangible evidence that the fire still burns is a smoking wasteland a few hundred yards from the edge of town where the ground is hot to the touch and the air reeks of sulfur, where white birch and maple trees have been rendered the color of a new penny.
The anthracite under and around Centralia could continue to burn for the next hundred years.
Lamar Mervine, the town's 84-year-old mayor, comes from a long line of coal miners and has lived in Centralia for most of his life. In fact, he remembers the day the fire started and recalls how no one took any action for four or five months." I guess they wanted it to get a good start," he quips. In those early days the cost of putting out the fire was estimated at anywhere from $175 to $30,000, but no party ever made a whole-hearted effort to extinguish the bluish flames. "They're always a day late and a dollar short," laments Mervine. These days it would take more than a few thousand dollars to eliminate the so-called danger. In 1983, the United States Office of Surface Mining (OSM) estimated that $663 million would be required to do the job.
Of course, underground fires are not unheard of in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania. Just last May, a local television broadcast showed workers digging out a mine fire in Carbondale, PA. But the type of coal under Centralia is decidedly rare, and perfect for fueling the flames. Known as anthracite, or hard coal, it's the most valuable type in the worldmaking up less than two percent of the reserves in the U.S. More importantly, it burns very slowly, emits little smoke, and requires no attention to sustain combustion. Because of this, the anthracite under and around Centralia could continue to burn for the next hundred years.
As recently as the early 1980s, the fire was viewed as a relatively minor inconvenience. But in 1983, nearby Route 61, a vital transportation link, suffered severe heat damage, leaving the pavement cracked and smoking, harm comparable to a substantial earthquake. At that point the highway department was forced to stabilize the road at a cost of half a million dollars. Then, in 1984, circumstances changed dramatically when the government appropriated $42 million to acquire individual properties in Centralia and relocate the town's businesses and residences. When presented with a financial incentive to leave people began packing up and abandoning Centralia en masse.
But the people couldn't move away fast enoughat least by the estimation of the state's politicians. "When they first started to move out the governor came to town and told us, 'anybody who wants to move, we'll buy the homeno pressure,'" says Mervine. "But then they declared eminent domain [the right of the government to appropriate private property for public use] and said all the homes were in the 'impact zone.'"
"Every once in a while they send us a letter telling us we're still in danger."
Ever since then, the pressure on the remaining residents to relocate has been omnipresent. Just last year, the town stopped cutting the grass, leaving the job to Centralia's aging population. "And every once in a while they send us a letter telling us we're still in danger," says Mervine, referring to the 20 or so residents that get together once a month for a town meeting.
According to Mervine, the government relocation project is almost solely responsible for the exodus from Centralia, and that the danger to residents has always been exaggerated by the media and local politicians. In response to the government's claim that there are dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in Centralia's air, Mervine laughs and says, "The air is better here than in Harrisburg [PA]. I lived in Harrisburg so I should know something about that." And in response to a widely reported story that a young boy once barely escaped plunging into a 300-foot deep hole caused by the fire, Mervine says the truth is far less dramatic; the youngster actually sank waist-deep into a former outhouse hole.
So it seems the slow dance between residents and politicians will continue for at least several more years. The remaining residents are mostly "too old to move" and besides, the impact of the fire has seemingly diminished in recent years. Route 61 has been re-routed around the old damaged stretch of pavement and the smoke and heat is currently confined to an area away from where the remaining residents live. Lamar's wife Lana says, "The only time we think of the fire is when people stop and ask for our views. I couldn't even tell you where the fire is. You tell me when you find it and then I'll know," she scoffs.
Mervine is also skeptical about the government surveys that have
been done. In response to the claim that there's 40 million tons
of coal underfoot, she laughs and says, "I don't know who went down
there and looked." Regardless, Lamar figures that all the anthracite
will eventually get mineda conservative estimate of its value
would be in the tens of billions of dollars. And while the government
could put the fire out, they apparently have no incentive to do
so until the residents are gone and mining can begin. Asked if he
thinks he'll see the fire out in his lifetime Lamar says, "If they
get the people out of town it will be put out in no time."
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