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Author Topic: 50 years on, coal seam ablaze underneath Centralia  (Read 2971 times)

Nigel Beardsley

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50 years on, coal seam ablaze underneath Centralia
« on: May 26, 2012, 12:15:01 AM »

David DeKok, author of "Fire Underground," a book about the town, poses Thursday on abandoned Route 61 in Centralia, Columbia County

CENTRALIA, Pa. -- It's an anniversary the few remaining souls who live here won't be celebrating.

Fifty years ago on Sunday, a fire at the town dump ignited an exposed coal seam and still burns today. It set off a chain of events that eventually led to the demolition of nearly every building in Centralia -- a whole community of 1,400 simply gone.

All these decades later, the Centralia fire maintains its grip on the popular imagination, drawing visitors from around the world who come to gawk at twisted, buckled Route 61, at the sulfurous steam rising intermittently from ground that's warm to the touch, at the empty, lonely streets where nature has reclaimed what coal-industry money once built. It's a macabre story that has long provided fodder for books, movies and plays -- the latest one debuting in March at a theater in New York.

Yet to the handful of residents who still occupy Centralia, who keep their houses tidy and their lawns mowed, this borough in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania is no sideshow attraction. It's home, and they'd like to keep it that way.

"That's all anybody wanted from day one," said Tom Hynoski, who's among the plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit aimed at blocking the state of Pennsylvania from evicting them.

Centralia was already a coal-mining town in decline when the fire department set the town's landfill ablaze on May 27, 1962, in an ill-fated attempt to tidy up for Memorial Day. The fire wound up igniting the coal outcropping and, over the years, spread to the vast network of mines beneath homes and businesses, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes.

After a contentious battle over the future of the town, the side that wanted to evacuate won out. By the end of the 1980s, more than 1,000 people had moved and 500 structures were demolished under a $42 million federal relocation program.

But some holdouts refused to go -- even after their houses were seized through eminent domain in the early 1990s. They said the fire posed little danger to their part of town, accused government officials and mining companies of a plot to grab the rights to billions of dollars' worth of anthracite coal, and vowed to stay put.

After years of letting them be, state officials decided a few years ago to take possession of the homes. The state Department of Community and Economic Development said Friday it's in negotiations with one of the five remaining homeowners; the others are continuing to resist, pleading their case in federal court.

Residents say the state has better things to spend its money on. A handwritten sign along the road blasts Gov. Tom Corbett, the latest chief executive to inherit a mess that goes back decades.

"You and your staff are making budget cuts everywhere," the sign says. "How can you allow [the state] to waste money trying to force these residents out of their homes? These people want to pay their taxes and be left alone and live where they choose!"

Whether it's safe to live there is subject to debate.

Tim Altares, a geologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said that while temperatures in monitoring boreholes are down -- possibly indicating the fire has followed the coal seam deeper underground -- the blaze still poses a threat because it has the potential to open up new paths for deadly gases to reach the remaining homes.

"It's very difficult to quantify the threat, but the major threat would be infiltration of the fire gases into the confined space of a residential living area. That was true from the very beginning and will remain true even after the fire moves out of the area," Mr. Alteres said.

Nonsense, say residents who point out they've lived for decades without incident.

Carl Womer, 88, whose late wife, Helen, was the leader of a faction that fiercely resisted the government buyout, disagrees the fire poses any threat.

"What mine fire?" Mr. Womer asked dismissively as he hosed down his front porch, preparing, he said, for a Memorial Day picnic. "If you go up and see a fire, you come back and tell me."

Author and journalist David DeKok, who has been writing about Centralia for more than 30 years, said that while he believes Mr. Womer's house is too close to the fire to safely live there, Mr. Hynoski and his neighbors are far enough away.

"I don't think there's any great public safety problem in letting those people stay there," said Mr. DeKok, author of "Fire Underground," a book on the town.

Many former residents, meanwhile, prefer to talk about the good times, their nostalgia taking on a decidedly golden hue.

"I loved it. I always liked Centralia from the time I was old enough to understand what it was," said Mary Chapman, 72, who left in 1986 but returns once a month to the social club at the Centralia fire company.

"If you came out of your house and you couldn't get your car started, the neighbor would come out and he'd help you. You didn't even have to ask," Ms. Chapman continued. "Of course the neighbors knew your business, but they also were there to help you, too."

http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/state/50-years-on-coal-seam-ablaze-underneath-centralia-637596/

The Stacker

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Re: 50 years on, coal seam ablaze underneath Centralia
« Reply #1 on: June 01, 2012, 08:24:24 AM »
Hello Nigel - did you post this just for information and curiosity or does it speak to something more?  I actually find this fascinating. 

Nigel Beardsley

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Re: 50 years on, coal seam ablaze underneath Centralia
« Reply #2 on: June 01, 2012, 09:52:19 AM »
Hello Nigel - did you post this just for information and curiosity or does it speak to something more?  I actually find this fascinating. 

Hi. My thinking is... This has been burning underground for 50 years!! Wonder what state the sub terrain is in. How much coal has burnt in 50 years and how much has that made the whole area unstable?

The Stacker

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Re: 50 years on, coal seam ablaze underneath Centralia
« Reply #3 on: June 01, 2012, 10:22:12 AM »
Ah - yes.  I first heard about this a couple years ago.  I'm not a geologist so I'm not sure how to put this into perspective - wasn't sure how to visualize what was happening underground.  However, this was one of many events that served as a paradigm shift for me.  I didn't know this could happen so I wondered "what else could be happening".  It was such a tangible example of how man can instigate a cause and effect event in nature.  That this coal seem could have sat there for eternity OR it could be set on fire and follow the laws that govern its behavior.

Yowbarb

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Re: 50 years on, coal seam ablaze underneath Centralia
« Reply #4 on: January 13, 2015, 10:41:32 AM »
Yowbarb Note: You have to sign up with this forum to get the whole story which goes to this illustration... Just to give you an idea. I will post other story links folowing this one. You may have heard about the burning underground from the mines in Centralia, PA. Burning since sometime in the 1960s.
...
Photo: http://pafirefighter11.smugmug.com/Silent-Hill-Centralia-PA-Trips/Centralia-Photos/DSCN0395/569448704_th9UF-L.jpg

The Real Silent Hill - Centralia, PA - Underground Mine Fire ...

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"Here is a drive around video of the town. You can see one of the remaining houses, and the rest is .. well, just empty streets."

The Smoldering Ruins of Centralia • Damn Interesting

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In its prime, Centralia was a vibrant community with five hotels, seven churches, nineteen general stores, two jewelry stores, and about twenty-six saloons. Today it is a modern ghost town...

Yowbarb

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Re: 50 years on, coal seam ablaze underneath Centralia
« Reply #5 on: January 13, 2015, 10:58:35 AM »
Some excerpts about Centralia, PA and the mine disaster there...
...................................................................................................

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centralia,_Pennsylvania

Centralia, Pennsylvania
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The ZIP code for Centralia, 17927, was revoked, so the ZIP code for nearby Ashland, Pennsylvania is used.

Centralia is a borough and a near-ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, United States. Its population has dwindled from over 1,000 residents in 1981 to 10 in 2010, as a result of the Centralia mine fire burning beneath the borough since 1962. Centralia is the least-populated municipality in Pennsylvania

All properties in the borough were claimed under eminent domain by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1992 (and all buildings therein were condemned), and Centralia's ZIP code was revoked by the Postal Service in 2002. State and local officials reached an agreement with the remaining residents on October 29, 2013 allowing them to live out their lives there, after which the rights of their properties will be taken through eminent domain.

Main article: Centralia mine fire
In 1962, a fire started in a mine beneath the town and ultimately led to the town being almost entirely abandoned.

There is some disagreement over the specific event which triggered the fire. David DeKok, after studying available local and state government documents and interviewing former borough council members, argues in Unseen Danger and its successor edition, Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, that in May 1962, the Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill, located in an abandoned strip-mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This had been done prior to Memorial Day in previous years, when the landfill was in a different location. On May 27, 1962, the firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire and let it burn for some time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not fully extinguished. An unsealed opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia.

Joan Quigley argues in her 2007 book, The Day the Earth Caved In, that the fire had in fact started the previous day, when a trash hauler dumped hot ash or coal discarded from coal burners into the open trash pit. She noted that borough council minutes from June 4, 1962 referred to two fires at the dump, and that five firefighters had submitted bills for "fighting the fire at the landfill area". The borough, by law, was responsible for installing a fire-resistant clay barrier between each layer,[clarification needed] but fell behind schedule, leaving the barrier incomplete. This allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein of coal underneath the pit and start the subsequent subterranean fire.
Another theory of note is the Bast Theory. According to legend, the Bast Colliery coal fire of 1932 was never fully extinguished. In 1962, it reached the landfill area.
In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, inserted a dipstick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer down on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F (77.8 °C).[10] Statewide attention to the fire began to increase, culminating in 1981 when a 12-year-old resident named Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole 4 feet (1.2 m) wide by 150 feet (46 m) deep that suddenly opened beneath his feet in a backyard. His cousin, 14-year-old Eric Wolfgang, pulled Todd out of the hole and saved his life. The plume of hot steam billowing from the hole was measured and found to contain a lethal level of carbon monoxide.[11]

Although there was physical, visible evidence of the fire, residents of Centralia were bitterly divided over the question of whether or not the fire posed a direct threat to the town. In "The Real Disaster is Above Ground," Steve Kroll-Smith and Steve Couch identified no less than six community groups, each organized around varying interpretation of the amount and kind of risk posed by the fire.

In 1984, the U.S. Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers and moved to the nearby communities of Mount Carmel and Ashland. A few families opted to stay despite warnings from Pennsylvania officials.[citation needed]

In 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain on all properties in the borough, condemning all the buildings within. A subsequent legal effort by residents failed to have the decision reversed. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked Centralia's ZIP code, 17927. In 2009, Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of the remaining Centralia residents.

The Centralia mine fire extended beneath the town of Byrnesville 0.6 miles to the south and caused it also to be abandoned.
Today[edit]

Very few homes remain standing in Centralia. Most of the abandoned buildings have been demolished by the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority or reclaimed by nature. At a casual glance, the area now appears to be a field with many paved streets running through it. Some areas are being filled with new-growth forest. The remaining church in the borough, St. Mary's, holds weekly services on Sunday and has not yet been directly affected by the fire.[citation needed] The town's four cemeteries—including one on the hilltop that has smoke rising around and out of it—are maintained in good condition.[citation needed] There is also a notice board posted near Hammie Hill, about 500 yards from the cemetery, protesting the evictions and demanding that Governor Corbett intervene.
STORY CONTINUES https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centralia,_Pennsylvania

 

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