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Centralia PA

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Fire In The Hole
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The Little
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by Donald Hollinger

 

RESIDENTS TO SAVE THE BOROUGH OF CENTRALIA - FACT SHEET #6 - MARCH 1984 - This "Fact Sheet" was transcribed from a photocopied, original March 1984 newsletter from a Centralia organization called "Residents To Save The Borough Of Centralia".  Read the News Letter here


130th Anniversary
of the 1877 Shamokin Uprising and the Great Railroad Strike .. Read More

 

Centralia Today
A Photo Documentary
of Centralia today.

 

Mine Emergency Response Program
Details from the
Saskatchewan
Mine Rescue Manual
 

 

 

  

 

Centralia Pennsylvania

 
The 450 Report

by Dr. Fullerm of the Susquehanna University

INTRODUCTION

            Centralia is a small town located in Central Pennsylvania with a history fabricated on coal mining. In 1962 bad judgment on the placement of a local landfill in an old strip mine pit caused the Buck Mountain and Mammoth Mountain coal seams to catch fire. Little effort to extinguish the mine fire at the beginning allowed it to build to uncontrollable proportions causing state and federal agencies to get involved with the technological disaster. Evidence of the underground inferno can be seen in noxious gases billowing from vents in the ground, subsidence large enough to cause the closure of a major highway, or the dead landscape surrounding Centralia. In the 38 years that the mine fire has been burning a swarm of legal issues has engulfed the town ranging from eminent domain to a murder suicide case. The few residents who have refused to move from their homes claim the government’s inability to put out the fire is a conspiracy in order to obtain mineral rights to mine the anthracite still underlying the borough.

DEMOGRAPHICS

Location

            The borough of Centralia is located in the Conyngham Township in Columbia County in central Pennsylvania (The Pennsylvania Marketing & Planning Center, 2000).

Population

            In 1962, the Borough of Centralia had a population of 1100 and 545 families and businesses (PA DEP, 1998).  In 1990, the population had dropped to 63 persons (18 families) (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990).  In 1996, the population dwindled to only 46 persons (Please see Figures 1 & 2).  This drop in population is due to the acquisition of 545 residences and businesses and resident relocations by the State during 1985-1991 (PA DEP, 1998).  As of 1990, all 63 persons lived in a rural non-farm setting (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990). 

Figure 1.  Centralia in 1983 (www.centraliapa.com).
 

Figure 2.  Centralia Today (www.offroaders.com).

In 1990, all 63 Centralia residents were white.  Forty-five residents claimed single ancestry, and 21 claimed multiple ancestry.  The three biggest ethnicities under the single ancestry designation were Irish (15), Lithuanian (9), and German (8).  Other ethnicities listed included Arab, English, Polish, Norwegian, Ukrainian, and Swiss.  English was the language spoken at all homes, and two households spoke in Slavic languages as well (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990).

            Most people living in Centralia in 1990 were above the age of 20 and married.  The three most populated age groups were 56-59 years (8 residents), 35-39 years (6 residents), and 65-69 years (5 residents).  Seven residents were under the age of 18 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990).

Education

            In 1990, three persons 3 years or older were enrolled in public elementary or high school, and 5 people were enrolled in a public college.  Nine people 25 years or older had an educational attainment of less than 9th grade.  Twenty-two people in Centralia had gone to high school but received no diploma, and 24 people were high school graduates.  No one living in Centralia in 1990 over the age of 18 had received a college degree (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990). 

Military Service

            In 1990, nine veterans between the ages of 16 and 64 lived in Centralia.  Three of these veterans served during the Vietnam era, Korean conflict, but no World War II.  Three different veterans served from February 1955 to July 1964 only, and three veterans served only in World War II (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990).

Industry/Employment

The three biggest industries for which Centralians worked in 1990 were manufacture of durable goods, manufacture of non-durable goods, and mining (outside of the Borough).  By 1993, there were no employees working in mining in Centralia or in Columbia County (The Pennsylvania Marketing & Planning Center, 2000).

The three most popular occupations for Centralia residents were precision production, craft, and repair occupations; machine operators, assemblers, and inspectors; and transportation and material moving occupations.  In 1990, 17 residents worked outside of Columbia County and 7 residents worked within their county of residence.  No residents took public transportation to work.  Most residents worked approximately 10-14 minutes away from their house (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990).

The median household income in Centralia in 1989 was $16, 667.  Four people in 1989 were earning incomes below the poverty level (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990).  Since 1990, the unemployment rate in Columbia County has mirrored that of Northeastern PA (the latter being slightly higher) and of Pennsylvania and the United States as a whole (PA and US being slightly lower).  Columbia County’s unemployment rate for August 2000 was 4.3%, down 0.8% from the previous month (The Pennsylvania Marketing & Planning Center, 2000).

Housing & Living Structure

 In 1990, there were 36 total housing units. Thirty-one of these housing units were occupied, and 5 were vacant. Twenty-seven of the occupied housing units were owner-occupied, and 4 were renter-occupied. All owner-occupied housing units had a value of less than $99, 999. The median value for these units was $33,300 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990).

All 5 vacant housing units were not boarded up. One vacant housing unit was up for rent in 1990, and had been up for rent for 6 or more months. Those units that were rented had a rent of less than $199 per month (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990). All other vacant units had been vacant for either less than two months, or for six months or more (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990).

The majority of housing units in Centralia were built prior to 1939 (23 out of 36). The remaining structures were built from 1970-1979, 1950-1959, or 1940-1949. In 1990, two of the vacant housing units were built in 1970-1979 and 5 were built prior to 1939 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990). Most of these housing units are “rowhouses”.

Sixteen of 28 householders moved into their house prior to 1959. Two householders moved into their units from 1989 to March 1990, and ten householders moved into Centralia between 1960 and 1979, the period when the Centralia mine fire was discovered and efforts were made to extinguish it.

As of 1990, all 36 residences got their water supply from a public system or a private company, and all 36 residences had access to a public sewer system. House heating fuels used included electricity, fuel oil, kerosene, and coal or coke. There were complete plumbing facilities in all residences and all remaining vacant housing units. No houses were mortgaged in 1990 in Centralia (U.S. Census Bureau, 1990).
 

HISTORY OF THE MINE FIRE IN CENTRALIA

            The history of the underground mine fire at Centralia really begins with the mining rights in the 1950’s.  In 1951 Coates Coal Company purchased the subsurface areas of Centralia.  These subsurface rights were eventually transferred to Centralia and the Centralia School District.  In 1965 the school district conveyed its ownership of these rights to the Borough of Centralia (658 A.2d 840; 1995). 

            In early 1962 the Borough of Centralia decided to make a landfill behind a cemetery in an abandoned strip mine.  This permit for this landfill was issued on June 20, 1962.  On May 29, 1962 the borough of Centralia decided to unofficially burn the landfill to improve the appearance, smell and remove any rats present.  Volunteer fire fighters were present to control this fire.  They thought the fire had been under control and was extinguished, but on May 29 flames and smoke were noticed at the landfill.  The fire department tried to put out the fire again, but was unsuccessful (Dekok, 16-22).  Figure 3 shows the anatomy of a mine fire.     

There were two offers to put out the mine fire that were refused by the Department of Mines and Mineral Industries even though these offers were very cheap and had good chance being successful.  The first attempt to officially put out the fire began on August 22,1962 by Edward Bridy.  He was given approximately $20,000 for this excavation and was told not to do exploratory drilling to find the edge of the fire.  Instead he was given dimensions to excavate.  This only fed air to fire and the project was terminated on October 29, 1962 (Dekok, 39-40). 

 

Figure 3.  The anatomy of a mine fire. 

 

            Later that year in November a flushing project began by K and H Excavating.  This project was terminated before completion on March 15, 1963 because the project ran out of funding after spending $42,420 (Dekok, 40).

            In April of 1963, three projects to extinguish the fire were proposed and rejected by the Secretary of Mines.  A trench project began on July 9, 1963 with a budget of 36,225.  This project was terminated when the fire was discovered on both sides of the trench (Dekok, 48-49).

            The Appalachian Regional Commission on June 8, 1965 approved a larger project with two phases and an estimated cost of $2,525,000.  This project would include backfilling the landfill, flushing, and excavation a trench.  This would require the relocation of some of the houses in Centralia.  The drilling began for this project on May 8, 1967 by Empire Contracting.  When the project ran out of money, the plans for the trench changed to a half circle instead of completely surrounding the fire.  This project was eventually canceled because of a lack of funding, probably related to cost benefit factors (Dekok, 56-61). 

            The next attempt at blocking the mine fire was a fly ash barrier constructed by Stearns Service Corporation of Nanticoke on May 5, 1969 costing $518,840.  The fly ash barrier was much cheaper than total excavation of the fire, but was not proven to be the most effective method of extinguishing the fire.  The residents in the town also started to notice a lack of Oxygen in their houses and high temperatures were discovered in some of the yards.  The government bought the first three houses in Centralia because of the high temperatures and gases found in the houses.  A small trench was started in the summer 1969 that would meet up with the fly ash barrier.  This trench ended before eight of the houses in Centralia.  During the process of digging out the trench the fire was uncovered.  The funding ran out after the fire was exposed and the order was given to back fill the hole (Dekok, 70-77).

            Everyone seemed to forget about the fire until the fly ash barrier started to fail.  In 1973 an emergency $250,000 was appropriated by the Appalachian Regional Commission.  This money was used to repair the fly ash barrier and to drill 53 monitoring wells (Dekok, 81). 

              Work began in May 1978 on a project, funded by the Department of Environmental Resources, to locate the leak in the fly ash barrier and to repair this leak.  This project cost $429,550.  During this project two pits were backfilled.  This was a mistake because these pits were obviously updrafts, when they were filled gases could no longer escape and gases instead began to seep into houses (Dekok, 91).

            Around this time the Appalachian Regional Commission began to consider constructing another limited trench.  This trench would pick up where the previous trench left off.  In order for this trench to be constructed twenty-five houses and a church would have to be moved.  The funds for this project never materialized and a new project was created.  This project was a super flush barrier.  The money for this project came from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.  It was determined that a trench was no longer feasible (Dekok, 95-99).

            The locations of the projects that have been implemented up to this time by both state and federal agencies are shown in Figure 4 (GAI Consultants).  The next step in the Centralia project was the relocation of the houses in Centralia because the fire had become too large to be economically feasible to control.  The projected extent of the fire is shown in Figure 5 (GAI Consultants).  By 1982 the U.S. Office of Surface Mining had acquired 34 of the impacted properties.  The Department of Environmental Resources also initiated an air quality


 

monitoring program.  By 1983 the U.S. Office of Surface Mining estimated that $663 million would be needed to completely extinguish the fire.  In 1984 the U.S. Congress appropriated $42 million to purchase houses and businesses impacted by the mine fire (subsidence and toxic gases).  This was a completely voluntary relocation project.  Between 1985 and 1992 545 residences and businesses moved.  In 1992 condemnation processes began against the remaining 53 residences (DEP, 1996). 

Subsidence also began to show along Route 61.  Penn DOT stabilized the road at a cost of $0.5 million.  In 1993 Route 61 was closed permanently due to more subsidence (DEP, 1996).  Figure 6 shows old Route 61 as it is today. 

Figure 6.  Old Route 61.

As of right now in Centralia there are still 36 residences and the fire is continuing to spread.  No legal action has been taken against the remaining families.  The plan for extinguishing the fire is to let it burn out on its own because excavation will cost too much money. 

 

STATE & FEDERAL AGENCY INVOLVEMENT

            Numerous governmental agencies have been involved (or are currently involved) in Centralia.  Whether it is eminent domain proceedings, scientific research, or relocation assistance, both state and federal agencies have had a large presence in the borough ever since the mine fire was discovered in May of 1962.  Please see Table 1 for a brief history of state and federal agencies’ involvement with Centralia:

Table 1.  State and federal agency involvement in Centralia.

Dates

Agency & Type of Involvement

1962-1978

State & federal governments expend $3.3 million to control fire with limited results.

1972-1982 The United States Office of Surface Mining (OSM) acquires 34 impacted properties & contracts for a study to determine its potential to spread.

1983

 

PA DER (precursor to DEP) initiates air quality monitoring program.
PA Department of Community Affairs (DCA) & Columbia County Redevelopment Authority (CCRA) initiate program to voluntarily relocate residents of Centralia.

1984

U.S. Congress appropriates $42 million for voluntary acquisition and relocation of impacted businesses & residences due to dangers caused by fire.

 

Previously acquired properties are transferred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

 

   January-92

The Centralia Task Force (under OSM) utilizes condemnation procedures to acquire properties and relocate remaining residents.

February 18, 1992

Attorneys for CCRA notify Centralia residents that CCRA will acquire all remaining properties by exercising the DCA's power of eminent domain.

January 28, 1993

CCRA files declarations of taking with the trial court (PA Court of Common Pleas of Columbia County) for the purpose of acquiring only the surface to certain parcels of real property threatened by the underground mine fire.

1993

DER stabilizes Route 61 after it suffers severe subsidence damage from the mine fire.

December-94

PA Court of Common Pleas of Columbia County denies Centralia residents' objections to the declarations of taking filed by the CCRA.  Decision is affirmed on appeal.

February-96

Commonwealth services include:  Department of Community Affairs (Public Works Administration, demolition of vacant structures, population relocation) & DEP (environmental impact studies - Quarterly on-site monitoring of fire).
Source: Excerpts from DEP's A Brief History of The Centralia Mine Fire, February 1996.

 

COAL MINES

History

            Coal mining has been a major source of fossil fuel in the United States throughout its history.  Pennsylvania began coal mining in the mid-1700s, and by 1977, it had mined one third of the nation's coal.  By the 1800s, Pennsylvania coal was fueling the industrial growth of the country and was the primary fuel source for Western Pennsylvania’s steel industry. Anthracite and bituminous coal production peaked in 1918 with a combined production of 276 million tons. (DEP 2000)  Anthracite is purer and burns hotter and longer than the bituminous.  Pennsylvania was such a force in the coal industry because most of its veins were in fact anthracitic.  Between the Delaware and the Susquehanna rivers, represent all the anthracite coal in the United States, this covers an area of 488 square miles (Ohio State 2000).  The reason that this state was able to support such a mining effort is because of the Mammoth and Buck Mountain Seams. The Buck Mountain area consists of 2400 acres.  Centralia is located over the Western Middle Anthracite Field (see Figure 7), specifically the Buck Mountain, Seven-Foot, Skidmore, Mammoth, Mammoth Leader, Four-Foot, Bottom-Split Holmes, Primrose Leader, and Primrose Coal Seams.  These first six named seams run entirely through the borough of Centralia, with the remaining four forming the nose of a syncline in the south-western corner of the borough (see Figure 8). 

Mining here commenced from its settlement in 1842 and continued through the 1900s until 1963 when coal mining as a whole ceased to be a prominent source of fuel. (Couch 2000)  Many coal companies were present in the area, beginning with the Centralia Colliery in 1862, the Continental Colliery in 1863, Locust run Colliery in 1867, but the most prominent was Lehigh Valley Coal Company.  This New York based firm held control of the Centralia Mine until


 

1925. A decline in the business and many bootleg operations had lessened the demand for coal and the mine was closed.  The Centralia Mining Company (or the Birtley Coal Company) reopened the Centralia Mine in 1935 under Ed Whitney.  At this time a stripping pit was mined, which later would be the site for the garbage disposal area where the refuse ignited.  In 1955, the Rooster Company bought the mine, and then eventually sold it to Coates Coal Company in 1962.  In this year the Germantown park Coal Company owned the rights to the minerals and surface.  The Jeddo-Highland Coal Company leased the surface rights, while the mineral rights were leased to the Susquehanna Coal Company.  Jeddo-Highland commenced with strip mining the area, and Susquehanna undertook the deep mining of the area.  In 1963 mining here ceased, leaving a sizable pit (75 feet wide and 50 feet deep).  (DEP 2000)

Process of Mining

The coal measures lie on a floor of conglomerate rock, which rises about them on all sides like the sides of a basin, and is exposed on the slopes and summits of the mountains surrounding the coal regions.  The thickness of the coal beds varies from 1 foot to 32 feet, and that of the rock from a few feet to 200. The coal beds are pretty regularly distributed throughout the coal measures, and their presence in a certain place can generally be calculated upon (Ohio State 2000).

Coal can be mined in two ways, through the surface (strip mining) or by burrowing through the layers of earth (underground mining).  Strip mining which involves the removal of topsoil and subsoil first and then the coal and overburden are removed, is practiced mostly in the flat topography of the western US.  Strip mining accounts for 60 percent of the coal now produced in the US.  The other 40 percent is from underground mining though in the past underground mining was the dominate method.  This second technique involves the approaching of the seam either vertically or horizontally, is practiced in the uneven landscape of the Appalachian mountain states. (ACF 2000)  Underground mining is done either through drifts, dug horizontally into the seam, or shafts, vertical digging through overburden slanting down from the surface to the seam (ACF 2000).  Structures of these collieries included drift, tunnel, slope, and shaft.  Drift was a tunnel driven into the side of the seam from its outcrop straight on, and since it was tilted slightly upward, it drained itself.  A tunnel was the same as a drift but driven into the rock at a right angle, therefore meeting the seam inside the mountain.  The slope was driven down into the seam where the dip was located.  The shaft intersected the vein from straight above so the coal could be mined from all sides. (Wallace 1987) 

In deep mines, such as the one that existed in Centralia, the seam that was being mined had to be supported.  This was done by leaving columns of coal in pace for support, commonly referred to as the “room and pillar” method (ACF 1987).  Another method of support used was to put into place large timbers from the floor to the ceiling of the mine.  Coal was removed from the mines by mule-drawn carts, or by carts that followed a natural downward slope out of the shaft. Centralia had its share of both methods of mining, an outcrop was strip mined in the mid thirties, but in the area where the fire is concentrated, the underground mines were prevalent.  In the Depression years, many bootleg mine shafts appeared in the area of and surrounding Centralia.  These were shafts that were hand dug into the side of the vein and the miner and coal brought out in buckets.  This dangerous form of mining went unregulated for the most part and caused and increased amount of shaft openings in the area. 

Mine Fires

The burning of coal produces certain emissions including- sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide. (USGS 2000)  The percentages of each element vary with the mineral composition of the coal.  These may pose a potential health threat.  When mine fires exist, there is no accurate way to measure the amounts of emissions escaping from the site.  Mine fires can also be the cause of hazardous subsidence in some areas.

Subsidence

Subsidence is a major threat to the safety of people here, and is very visible, especially in the vicinity of Old Route 61 as seen in Figure 9.

Figure 9.  Subsidence evident at Old Route 61.

In 1981, a boy ventured near a hole that was opening in the ground as a result of subsidence.  He fell into the hole and was eventually rescued by his cousin (Couch 2000).  Such an incident as this is a major hazard of subsidence.   Mine Subsidence Insurance may be available for homeowners living in areas where mines are either in operation or have been abandoned.  This is not included in funds for reclamation, but the application is provided on the site.  Mine subsidence is defined by the DEP as movements of the ground surface as a result of the collapse or failure of underground mine workings.  There are different kinds of subsidence, the most common being sinkhole subsidence which occurs in areas overlying underground mines which are close to the surface.  Another kind of subsidence that results from mining is called trough subsidence.  This occurs when the overburden sags downward due to the failure of mine pillars resulting in a large, shallow depression on the ground in an elliptical or circular shape.  Horizontal ground movements may also be associated with this type of subsidence.  Insurance will cover any property damage caused by subsidence of the ground due to mine cave-ins, fires and other hazards (Mine Subsidence Insurance, DEP).  If the building has not sustained earlier damage from mine subsidence it is possible for a homeowner to receive monetary aid from the Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund.  In 1966 a law was passed declaring that in the bituminous underground coal mining area operators were liable for mine subsidence damage to dwellings and structures.  This law was amended in 1994.  However, as the people of Centralia do not really own the property they are living on, as the government has repossessed it, it is doubtful they are eligible for any mine insurance.  Also the risk of damage that may be caused by mine subsidence and the mine fire are so high in that area that coverage would be impossible for the people to secure.  They have chosen to live in such a high-risk area and therefor have moved to the nuisance and assumed all risks brought by it.

Other Sites of Mine Fires

Mine fires are not unique to Centralia, but are found throughout the state, country, and even the world. The oldest known continuously burning underground mine fire is in New South Wales, Australia. They think the fire started when lightning struck an outcrop of coal near the surface of the ground. This fire has been burning for over 2,000 years (Times News Online 1999).

Around the world underground mine fires rage.  Some countries turn to the US for help in dealing with them.  A prime example of this is Steve Jones of the DEP, who has recently had the primary task to field train Indonesian mining personnel in mine fire characterization, control and extinguishment techniques. While on assignment in Kalimantan (formerly Borneo), he supervised the exploratory drilling of two fires near the towns of Balikpapan and Samarinda and the extinguishment of five fires near Samarinda. The fires were threatening the stability of the only road serving Balikpapan, Samarinda and Bontang.

Two of the fires also threatened the stability and safety of nearby homes, a mosque and an elementary school. The fire near the elementary school was visited by Governor Suwarna of the Province of East Kalimantan. (DEP 2000)  Other fires rage in China, however these are far to deep and extensive to put out (Jones 2000). 

Even throughout the US mine fires are not uncommon.  Some examples include: Consolidation Coal Company's Loveridge No. 22 Mine, Miracle Run Portal located in West Virginia (underground coal), that began in June 22,1999; Oxbow Mining Incorporated's Sanborn Creek Mine, located near Somerset, Colorado (Underground Coal) began January 26, 1999; and on Wednesday, November 25, 1998 at approximately 6:20 PM, a mine fire occurred at the Cyprus Plateau Mining Corporation's Willow Creek Mine, which is located near Price, Utah.  The accident occurred near the longwall tailgate area during normal coal production.  No injuries resulted from the incident, however, several longwall crew members were knocked down by the ensuing rush of air.  An orange colored flame was observed in the gob that appeared to move toward the face area and then back into the gob. (MSHA 2000)

At this time, 45 underground mine fires are burning in the state of Pennsylvania.  Fires that occurred within the state include: Fayette County is home to the Percy Mine fire which has been burning for over thirty years (Glover 1998).  There is a possible mine fire burning in Archabald, PA near the Valley View High School.  A brush fire has ignited the underground root system of the trees. The ground is smoldering and it looks like the center of the brush fire was an old stripping.  A fire has just been discovered burning in a culm bank near Wayne Street in Carbondale, PA.  OSM people are on scene and a trench is being dug by heavy equipment around the fire. This fire has been burning off of Dundaff Street in Carbondale since before the 1960's.  In the 60's people got sick from the carbon monoxide gas and I believe one person died. Close to 600 families had to move out of the neighborhood over the years because of this fire.  It is still burning and the site being worked by heavy equipment.  Also in Carbondale, PA this fire is thought to be out. It was starting in culm banks at the former Powderly Colliery.  This site has been dug up and watered down and no sign of fire has been detected for about two years.  The fire may have spread to underground coal seams and evidence of it may not be visible.  A mine fire has been detected in the Borough of Beaver Brook near Hazleton. The mine fire started when garbage dumped in a stripping pit was set on fire.  Officials from the Office of Surface Mining called in heavy equipment to try to dig up the fire.  It is not known at this time if the fire has spread to coal seams (PA Mine Fire Facts 2000).  Letcher County is home to another mine fire, one that started over 20 years ago, but many local reports trace it back to the 1920s.  This spring, the federal Office of Surface Mining hired workers who spent more than four months and $140,000 to keep the fire from spreading below one family's cemetery. They succeeded, but couldn't completely stop the slow-burning fire. (Williams 2000)

Mine Remediation

Mine fires still occur today in working mines.  The Mine Safety and Heath Association is responsible for the prevention and extermination of mine fires.  Today they dispatch mine emergency personnel with a mine command vehicle, a mobile infrared monitoring vehicle, as well as a mobile air analysis laboratory to the inflamed mine.  A typical response to put out the fire is to simply seal off the mine preventing any oxygen to feed the fire.  Boreholes may also be drilled into the ground to monitor gases in various locations around the fire.  In some cases inert gases and other materials such as a mixture of fly ash and concrete may in injected into the mine in an attempt to smother the fire (Mine Safety and Health Association, 2000).

In the 1960’s the government appropriated $3.3 million to put out Centralia's fire.  They did not have all of this technology, such as the mobile air analysis lab, but they did try to seal off the mine and blew large quantities of fly ash and concrete into it in an attempt to smother the fire (DEP Centralia Mine Fire Chronology, 1998).  Unfortunately this was too little too late and the fire was unable to be controlled.  This was probably due to the large numbers of bootleg mine shafts in the area.  During the great depression coal was in great demand and families began to mine their own coal, armed with a shovel and a pickax.  This was an extremely dangerous profession, as the mining company would often blow up a bootleg mine in an attempt to prevent the theft of their coal.  However, the bootleg coal was in such demand that by the height of the great depression trucks ran back and forth from Centralia to Philadelphia, New Jersey and even New York City carrying as much as 4 tons of coal.  This resulted in hundreds of mine shafts feeding air into the fire.  There are so many of them it would cost billions of dollars to plug them all, that is if they can even all be found.  Some have been located under houses and businesses that have been prior to the 1930s and even some later structures hide the whereabouts of these vents (DEP 2000).

In 1983 the United States Office of Surface Mining estimated that $663 million would be required to extinguish the fire.  That cost continues to rise as the fire spreads and gains strength.   Total costs that have been spent on relocation amount to $30,802,640.  The average costs spent per household or business is around $51,529 (DEP Centralia Mine Fire Chronology, 1998).

            Today the government is involved in demolition of vacant structures, population relocation and public works administration.  The Department of Environmental Protection also issues an annual Environmental Impact statement, which consists of quarterly on-site monitoring of the fire (DEP Centralia Mine Fire Chronology, 1998).  However, the population relocation consists of sending monthly notices to the remaining residents informing them that their homes have been repossessed and they are to move out.  No real action has been taken in to relocate the remaining families.  Most abandoned structures have been demolished, but residence can pay to reclaim their property and keep some structure on it.  One women pays $6/year in property taxes to retain the right to her land and maintain a small shed, which is all that remains standing on her property, which is now the site of a research project being performed by the Susquehanna University Science departments.

Mine Reclamation

            Mine reclamation was not even considered at the time Centralia mining industry went under.  The mines and shafts were simply abandoned by the mining companies.  This is why the town was able to use one of the shafts as a dump, which inevitably resulted in the mine fire we have today.

            Because of situations like this, as well as acid mine drainage and other problems caused by abandoned mines, the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation has been founded.  The Bureau is under the States Department of Environmental Protection and is housed in the Rachel Carson Office Building in Harrisburg, Pa. 

            They are in charge of the Growing Greener Grants, which provide money to clean up acid mine drainage, restore watersheds, preserve farmland and open spaces as well as for the maintenance of State Parks and the provision of new and upgraded water and sewage treatment facilities.  Reclaim Pa, a program that maximizes the reclamation of Pennsylvania’s mines also falls under their responsibility.  Mine Subsidence Insurance is provided on their website, as they are responsible for providing help and information on this topic.  The Act 54 Report is a report on current mining impacts on streams, buildings and other areas.  They are also responsible for resolving mine fires, mine subsidence, high walls and other hazards that have resulted from past mining practices, and for abating and treating acid mine drainage (DEP).

            The Growing Greener Grants are issued by the federal government and provides $650 million dollars for the next five years to clean up abandoned mines, restore watersheds, preserve farmland and protect open spaces as well as maintain State Parks and provide new and upgraded water and sewage systems.  As one may guess, the money is stretched thinly over these diverse areas.  However, the restoration on abandoned mines can be tied into the other areas that the grant provides funding for.

            Also, in restoring the mines one can increase the number of open spaces, as trees and grasses will be the first species to take over the land.  Eventually one can even promote farming by allowing farmers to graze their cattle on the slopes of the reclaimed mines.  Also, reduction in the acidity of the water flowing into a reservoir will decrease the amount of treatment it will have to undergo to remove minerals and other toxins released from the mine.  This will decrease the work the water treatment facility will have to do, decreasing the cost to run it and freeing up funding for other areas.

            Reclamation Pa is designed to deal with the millions of acres of abandoned mines that exist in Pennsylvania.  It is the collective term for the concepts the DEP has developed to make abandoned mine reclamation more efficient and easier.  It includes legislative, policy, and management initiatives that have been designed to enhance mine reclamation efforts of operators, volunteers and the DEP.  The organization has four objectives, which are listed below.

1)     To encourage private and public participation in the reclamation effort.

2)     To improve communication between reclamation partners, thus improving the efficiency of the act.

3)     Increase reclamation by reducing the remaining risks

4)     Maximize funding for reclamation by expanding existing sources and exploring new ones (Mineral Resources Webmaster, 2000)

Pennsylvania’s actual comprehensive plan for abandoned mine reclamation was issued June of 1997 and revised in June of 1998.  Governor Tom Ridge and Secretary Jim Seif are credited with its creation.  The Comprehensive plan includes all of those acts mentioned above.  The purpose of the plan was to establish a framework for organization.  Coordination is needed between the different organizations involved in the reclamation effort and areas had to be designated for funding according to their importance.  For some reason Centralia is not included in that list of important mine fires that received funding.  The plan is meant to be used as a guide or framework for the organization of the reclamation funding for the entire state of Pennsylvania.  All groups are meant to comply with the plan and take part in it.  The goals of the plan are listed below:

1.      To focus expenditures for the reclamation abandoned mine lands on maximizing benefits.

2.      To develop partnerships involving local citizens, local government and other groups that promote abandoned mine reclamation.

3.      To develop long-term funding sources that would allow for long-term planning and long-term funding commitments.

4.      To encourage the development and use of innovative technologies that reduces the cost of reclamation.

5.      To develop an aerial approach to reclamation planning that will result in reclamation and rehabilitation of an entire geographical area.

6.      To coordinate the activities of the Abandoned Mine Land program with the Mine Regulatory program so that active mine operators are encouraged to re-mine and reclaim where possible.

7.      To insure that property owners who allow the use of their lands for long-term treatment of abandoned mine drainage are not subject to personal or environmental liabilities because of the projects. (Ridge, Tom 1998).

There are also a series of guidelines for the awarding of Abandoned Mine Reclamation Grants were established in May of 1996 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.  Grants must meet certain qualifications in order to be approved.  They must have an approved rehabilitation plan and be submitted by a municipality, a municipal authority, such as the town mayor, or an incorporated nonprofit organization.  The grant may not be used for the administrative costs encored during the reclamation project.  It can and should be used for project development, design, construction and other directly related expenses.  In a hydraulic area, the biology of the stream must also be improved through the completion of the project in order for the plan to receive funding (Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation Grants).  Once these criteria are met the application for the grant may be submitted and the necessary fund may be appropriated for the completion of the project. 

Mine Subsidence Insurance may be available for homeowners living in areas where mines are either in operation or have been abandoned.  This is not included in funds for reclamation, but the application is provided on the site.  Mine subsidence is defined by the DEP as movements of the ground surface as a result of the collapse or failure of underground mine workings.  There are different kinds of subsidence, the most common being sinkhole subsidence which occurs in areas overlying underground mines which are close to the surface, see Figure 10.

sink1.jpg (18984 bytes)

Figure 10.  Sinkhole subsidence (DEP, Mine Subsidence, 2000).

Another kind of subsidence that results from mining is called trough subsidence.  This occurs when the overburden sags downward due to the failure of mine pillars resulting in a large, shallow depression on the ground in an elliptical or circular shape.  Horizontal ground movements may also be associated with this type of subsidence.  See Figure 11 for a diagram of mine subsidence.

diagra1.jpg (24822 bytes)

Figure 11.  Diagram of mine subsidence (DEP, Mine Subsidence, 2000).

Insurance will cover any property damage caused by subsidence of the ground due to mine cave-ins, fires and other hazards (Mine Subsidence Insurance, DEP).  If the building has not sustained earlier damage from mine subsidence it is possible for a homeowner to receive monetary aid from the Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund. In 1966 a law was passed declaring that in the bituminous underground coal mining area operators were liable for mine subsidence damage to dwellings and structures.  This law was amended in 1994.  However, as the people of Centralia do not really own the property they are living on, as the government has repossessed it, it is doubtful they are eligible for any mine insurance.  Also the risk of damage that may be caused by mine subsidence and the mine fire are so high in that area that coverage would be impossible for the people to secure.  They have chosen to live in such a high-risk area and therefor have moved to the nuisance and assumed all risks brought by it.

Background of Mineral Rights

            According to West's, a mineral right is an interest in minerals in the land, with or without ownership of the surface.  It also includes the right to take minerals from the land or to receive a royalty.  This term covers possession interests, entrance rights, and occupation.  Such rights can be sold or leased, and can exist with stipulations on certain permissions.  (Volume 7, 1998)  C.J.S. goes further in its definition to include that it is the right of those occupying the land to work it, which entailed deep excavations or open workings.  It put in its definition that the rights include whatever was necessary to beneficial enjoyment, such as the right to dig, or construct slopes or entries. It also includes the right to some or all of the minerals present, depending on specifications.  The locator of the minerals can lay claim to a new discovery or can claim those mineral that have for some reason been forfeited or abandoned.  The locator can also include an agent who makes a claim on behalf of someone else, or could be a group of people rather than just an individual.  Although not specified as a requirement in statues, minerals are usually discovered before a location is claimed.  Date of discovery is the most important aspect and in case of dispute, it is what is used for settlement.  If someone enters a land that appears to be vacant, they then have exclusive rights to any discovery they make there.  However, this last part is not applicable in the case of the government and persons claiming under it.  Relocation was defined as the appropriation of mining ground that has been forfeited or abandoned.  For this claim to hold, the lands must not be public and the prior rights of the original locator have for some reason been terminated.  (Volume 58, 1992)  However, when referring to location of the mine, the term "mining title" is used.  Generally, it can be said that if one owns the surface, then they in turn own all mines and minerals that might occur below it.  Minerals held within the ground are considered property and covered under those rights, and once they are mined, they are considered personal property.  Coals mining regulatory statues, especially surface and reclamation, have been covered by the individual state.  These have been upheld as constitutional, and are usually constructed in such a way that they are consistent with the federal acts and regulations.  Certain statutes exist that give authoritative bodies certain powers, such as the prevention of waste.  However, these powers are limited by state statues and must coincide with individual's rights.  Also, mine owners have the same responsibilities as property owners when it comes to personal injury incurred in their mine area.  They are to be held responsible if damage to water quality, flooding of the land or mine, or removal of the lateral supports should occur.  However, if the mineral rights are severed from surface rights, then the mine owners could be considered exempt from liability.  (C.J.S. Vol. 58, 1992)

Mineral Rights In Centralia
            According to the May 1, 1995 Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania decision Borough of Centralia v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et. al., a 1951 resolution “provided for subsurface areas to be purchased by Coates Coal Company, which in turn would convey all but two of those areas to Centralia and the Centralia School District.  The resolution received necessary court approval in the School District of Centralia Borough”.  Fourteen years later, the Centralia School District conveyed its ownership interest in the subsurface areas to Centralia (658 A.2d 840, 1995).

            In this same court case, Centralia appeals the previous Columbia Court of Common Pleas decision that said the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not engage in “de facto” taking of the coal under the Borough by condemnation.  The Commonwealth Court affirms this decision, saying that “No party has presently restricted Centralia’s right to mine.  There is no allegation that Centralia cannot now mine the subsurface areas it owns because surface areas will be taken and residents will be relocated.  Nor can it be established at this point that Centralia will cease to exist or will be definitely prevented from mining it in the future” (658 A. 2d 840, 1995).  However, the decision becomes complex as in a previous paragraph the Court states that Centralia’s mineral rights would be “transferred to the township in which Centralia is located upon any annulment of Centralia’s character” (658 A. 2d 840, 1995).  It is thus our understanding that Centralia may lose its coal rights if the Borough of Centralia goes defunct – that is, if everyone moves out.

 

SURFACE MINING CONTROL AND RECLAMATION ACT OF 1977 (SMCRA)

            The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) “states a need for balance between protection of the environment and agricultural productivity and the nation’s need for coal as an essential source of energy” (AGRIPEDIA, 2000).  According to ACRIPEDIA, Congress finds and declares in this act that:

¨      Prime farmland cannot be mined unless it can be restored to an equivalent or higher level of yield.

¨      Land must be returned to the approximate original contour and land must be restored to a condition capable of supporting the pre-mining land use or a higher or better use.

¨      Variances give permission to vary, with justification, from the letter of the law or regulation.  Example:  Permitted if post-mining use would improve the watershed.

¨      Each state is to assume authority for the program.  They must establish a mechanism for declaring lands unsuitable for mining if their reclamation is not technologically or economically feasible, contrary to local land use plans, or if the mining affects fragile or historic lands.

¨      An “orphan lands” fund is created.  Orphan lands are those lands that were mined in the past and improperly reclaimed (All bulleted information from AGRIPEDIA, 2000).

According to the Chief of the OSM Management Section Division of Mine Hazards in Harrisburg, PA, Lehigh Valley Coal Company and Coates Coal Company cannot be held liable for any problems associated with the Centralia mine fire (Steve R. Jones, P.G., 2000).

 

ILLEGAL DUMPING

            Apparently illegal dumping is still occurring in Centralia, PA (see Figure 12 & Environmental Law Class Video, 2000). 


Figure 12.
Picture of illegal trash dump pile in Centralia.
 

The illegal disposal of household and construction wastes on the land and in our waters creates problems for the environment, for people and their quality of life, as well as for fish and wildlife (Clean PA’s Forests, 2000). 

            There are many reasons why people may illegally dispose of their trash.   Legislative actions that may inadvertently encourage illegal dumping include requiring or modifying recycling programs, reducing litter cleanup budgets, mandating compost programs, banning specific items from landfills, and adopting litter taxes.  Private actions that may inadvertently encourage illegal dumping include increasing disposal fees, changing the frequency of local collections and disposal services, closing landfills or transfer stations, increasing landfill tipping fees, and rapid area growth and development (National Center for Environmental Decision-Making Research (NCEDR), 2000).

            According to Clean PA’s Forests, “individuals can face fines imposed by nearly every branch of government, from local and state police and local code enforcement officers, to the enforcement by fish and game officers, and DCNR and DEP personnel”.  Additionally, fines can be imposed up to $300 for violations of littering laws under the vehicle and crime codes.  Clean PA’s Forests also states that “lands along the waterways are protected from violators with penalties up to $100 under the Fish and Boat Code.  Under the Game and Wildlife Code, fines up to $300, which can be doubled for subsequent offenses and additionally assessed for $10 for each item, are imposed.  And, under PA Code Title 25, penalties as high as $25,000 can be imposed upon persons hauling waste to any site other than a DEP permitted facility”.

            The PA State Forest Lands Beautification Act (Act 125) is additional legislation regarding illegal dumping of waste.  Governor Tom Ridge signed this act into effect in December of 1998.  The purpose of this act is to “(1) To deter illegal waste disposal practices on State Forest and State Park lands and to ensure that waste is recycled or disposed of properly.  (2) To provide for the abatement of illegal waste disposal sites on State Forest and State Park lands and the threats to public health, safety and the environment which are associated with such sites.  (3) To provide for the removal, recycling or proper disposal of waste illegally disposed of on State Forest or State Park lands.  (4) To develop cooperative programs with local communities for preventing the illegal disposal of waste on State Forest and State Park lands or abutting lands” (PA State Forest Lands Beautification Act 125, 1998). 

            With this act, a restricted Forest Lands Beautification Account was created within the General Fund.  For five years after the act’s effective date, the fund may receive up to $1.5 million annually that will be used by the PA DCNR to carry out the purposes of this act.  The PA DCNR is also authorized to make grants to local agencies and nonprofit organizations to establish and administer programs under the act, and may enter into contracts and agreements with PA agencies, local agencies, corporations, partnerships, associations, etc. to carry out the purposes of this act (PA State Forest Lands Beautification Act 125, 1998).

 

[1]POLLUTION  FROM BURNING OF COAL, WASTE AND ILLEGAL DUMPING

The combustion of coal results in emissions to the atmosphere and the production of combustion waste that may contain toxic substances that could threaten public health or harm the environment (EPA, Miller 2000).  The burning of household waste and tires also produces emissions and combustion wastes that are harmful.  These emissions and wastes have the potential to pollute the air, water and soil.

Emissions from coal burning include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates (fly ash), toxic metals (lead, arsenic, nickel, mercury, chromium, beryllium and cadmium), and small amounts of radioactive elements (uranium and thorium) (Miller 2000, Boyce 1997). The radioactive elements can also include radon, radium, polonium, bismuth, and lead all daughter elements of uranium and thorium (Gabbard 2000).  The combustion wastes of coal can contain silicon oxides, aluminum, iron, calcium, magnesium, titanium, sodium, potassium, arsenic, mercury, sulfur, uranium and thorium (Gabbard 2000).  The concentrations of these substances in the emissions and wastes will vary and will depend on the chemical make up of the coal and the conditions under which it is burned. 

Emissions from uncontrolled burning of tires can include carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs)1, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)1, dioxins, furans, hydrogen chloride, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and metals (arsenic, cadmium, nickel, zinc, mercury, chromium and vanadium).  In a laboratory simulation of an uncontrolled burn of tires, the EPA measured concentration levels of over 40 VOCs1, 25 semi VOCs1, 20 PAHs1, and several metals.  Actual case studies produced approximately the same results (EPA 2000). The melting of tires in an uncontrolled burn can produce significant amounts of liquids and solids containing dangerous chemicals (EPA 2000).

Emissions from the burning of household garbage can include furans, dioxins, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, beryllium, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, benzene, particulates, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (Curlee1994).  Combustion waste commonly contains high concentrations of heavy metals and trace amounts of furans and dioxins (Curlee 1994).  Even if the waste does not burn, its presence poses a potential for contamination of soil and water from the leachate.  There have been over 100 potentially harmful substances identified in landfill leachate (Hitchcock Jessup 1992).

Carbon dioxide contributes to global climate change (global warming), sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides contribute to acid deposition while nitrogen oxides and VOCs can contribute to the creation of ozone at ground level, a serious health threat.  Many of the other emissions and substances in the combustion wastes are either known carcinogens or can lead to other serious health problems or environmental damages. 

Over the last 30 to 40 years many environmental regulations, along with their amendments, have been enacted to reduce or eliminate the emissions of toxic substances to protect public health and the environment.

 The Clean Air Act (CAA) was established “…to protect and enhance the quality of the nations air resources in order to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population” and has two standards (Wolfe 1988).  The first standard is the national ambient air quality standard regulating the concentrations of pollutants in the surrounding air see Table 2 and 3.  The second standard is point source emission limitations regulating the source of the pollution regardless of the ambient air quality. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 2.  National ambient air quality standards.*

 

Pollutant                             Type of Average            Standard Level Concentration

Carbon Monoxide                    8 hours                                     9 ppm       

                                                1 hour                                     35 ppm

Lead                                Quarterly Average                         1.5 mg/m3 

Nitrogen Dioxide                Annual Mean                           0.053 ppm

Sulfur Dioxide                    Annual Mean                             0.03 ppm

                                              24 hours                                0.14 ppm

 

*This is not a complete list.  Consult the CAA for a complete list. Source PADEP

 

Table 3.  PA ambient air quality standards.*

 

Pollutant                           Type of Average             Standard Level Concentration

Beryllium                               30 day                                    0.01 mg/m3

Hydrogen Sulfide                  24 hour                                0.005 ppm

                                               1 hour                                     0.1 ppm 

 

*This list is not complete. Consult PA's clean air standards for a complete list.  Source PADEP

The CAA has set limits on the emissions of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxides just to name a couple.  Under this act each state is responsible for implementing these standards and either establishing stricter limits or limits on substances not covered under the CAA.  Pennsylvania has established a list of 188 toxic air pollutants with many of the above-mentioned metals and VOCs on that list see Table 4 (PADEP).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 4.  Substances in emissions on PA’s toxic air pollutants list.*

Benzene                                                   Hydrochloric acid (Hydrogen Chloride)

Styrene                                                     Toluene

Vinyl chloride                                            Xylenes

Arsenic compounds                                  Beryllium compounds

Cadmium compounds                               Chromium compounds

Lead compounds                                      Mercury compounds

Nickel compounds                                    Selenium compounds         

* Substances in emissions will vary and this list may not be complete depending on the combustion of household waste.  For a complete listing see PADEP List of 188 Toxic Air Pollutants. 

 

CAA is meant to target the emissions from industry, incinerators, power generation and automobile exhaust and may not apply to the Centralia site.  Though the CAA has a provision that allows the EPA to require any individual owning or operating an emission source to establish and maintain records, make reports, use and maintain monitoring equipment or methods, sample emissions and provide other information that may reasonably be needed (Wolfe 1988).  At the Centralia site there are bore holes that were used for a study of the site in 1983 but at the time of this writing I had not heard from the PADEP as to any on going emissions monitoring.

The presence and the burning of household waste and tires is the result of illegal dumping.  The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulates the disposal of non-hazardous and hazardous waste.  RCRA sets the criteria for a sanitary landfill and prohibits the disposal of waste at open dumps.  RCRA defines an open dump as an area where solid waste is disposed of other than in a sanitary landfill (Wolfe 1988). 

In 1990 an amendment to the CAA established new guidelines for waste to energy (WTEs) generators.  These new guidelines required WTEs to reduce emissions of furans, dioxins, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen oxides, organic and acid gas emissions utilizing maximum achievable control technology (Francis 1994).  The amendment also required the EPA to issue limitations for lead, cadmium, and mercury (Francis1994).  Due to individuals illegally dumping their waste and its subsequent burning, substances regulated by the CAA are getting into the air.

The extent of the area that may be effected by emissions from Centralia depends on a number of variables including but not restricted to type of contaminant, prevailing winds, atmospheric conditions and climatic conditions.

A byproduct of any type of burning is combustion waste (ash products).  This waste contains many of the same harmful substances that are in the emissions.  These wastes either sit on the surface (household waste ash) or are underground (coal ash).  Wastes on the surface are subject to erosion and surface water run off where there is a potential for these substances to get into streams, rivers or lakes.  The substances and chemicals in wastes located under ground have the potential to migrate to water tables contaminating the groundwater. 

The EPA has ruled that “coal combustion waste is non-hazardous but these wastes contain toxic metals when improperly disposed of may pose a threat to public health and environment”.  These wastes are to be used in approved recycling methods or disposed of in sanitary landfills capable of handling them.  The combustion waste from incinerator plants of non-hazardous waste is still under debate but it also contains contaminates that are potentially harmful. 

At Centralia coal waste accumulates underground.  These wastes can be subjected to percolation of water from above or even exposed to the surface where a subsidence event has taken place.  Once exposed to water the waste can produce a leachate that can contain toxic substances which has the potential to contaminate groundwater.  The EPA maintains and updates a list of hazardous wastes with maximum concentrations needed for toxicity (see Table 5) (Hitchcock Jessup 1992).

Table 5.  Maximum concentrations of contaminants for toxicity.*

 

Contaminant        Concentration (mg/l)      Contaminant         Concentration (mg/l)

Arsenic                       5.0                           Benzene                         0.5

Cadmium                    1.0                           Lead                               5.0

Mercury                      0.2                           Selenium                         1.0

Vinyl Chloride             0.2

*This list represents only the substances previously mentioned.  Other substances may be present depending on what wastes are dumped at Centralia.  For a complete list of hazardous waste consult the EPA

       

Many items illegally dumped at Centralia are non-regulated household hazardous wastes.  Old paint and paint related products, pesticides, batteries and car care products.  There are items being dumped at Centralia that require special handling procedures such as old tires, oil products and car batteries.  Even without burning, this waste poses a potential threat.  Leachate containing lead from batteries and old paint, chemicals from cleaning products, pesticides, car oil and antifreeze can migrate to surface waters or contaminate the soil (many substances in this leachate are on the above mentioned EPA list).  In a sanitary landfill best technology has been applied to prevent or reduce the risk of contamination to water sources and soils.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was enacted to protect the waterways of the United States.  The principal objective of the act is to “Restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nations waters.  The act set three major goals; 1) Eliminate all discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, 2) Waters would become swimmable and fishable wherever attainable by July 1, 1985, 3) Prohibit the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts (Wolfe 1988).  The CWA allows individual states to set either stricter limits on contaminants or to set limits on contaminants not included in the CWA.  The act also requires states to develop, gain approval from the EPA and to implement guidelines and programs to achieve the goals of the CWA (Wolfe 1988). 

Once a water source has been contaminated, whether it is groundwater or surface water, municipalities utilizing said water source must conform to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  This regulation was designed to establish drinking water standards for public water supplies.  A public water system is defined as having at least 15 service connections or regularly serves at least 25 individuals.

The SDWA has established primary maximum contamination levels (MCLs) and secondary maximum contamination levels. Several metals that could be present in the wastes and emissions at Centralia are on the primary MCL list (see Table 6).

 

 

 

 

Table 6.  Concentration limits of contaminates listed in the primary MCLs of the SDWA.*

 

Contaminant     Concentration (mg/l)           Contaminant       Concentration (mg/l)

Arsenic                      0.05                                   Cadmium                 0.01

Lead                          0.05                                   Mercury                  0.002

Selenium                  0.01                                    Zinc**                    5.0         

*This is an incomplete list of primary MCLs for a complete list consult a book about SDWA

**Zinc is actually on the secondary MCL list

 

 Under SDWA the municipalities are also required to provide well head protection.  They are required to protect the surface and subsurface area surrounding a water well and or well field that supplies a public system.  This may prove difficult in communities neighboring the potential burn area such as Mt. Carmel or Ashland.  The PADEP through the 1983 GAI report has established a potential burn area.  These communities are outside that area but have a potential to receive contaminates from the burn site.  

It is important to note that the distance contamination will travel in groundwater depends on a wide set of variables of aquifer conditions and the types of contaminants (Miller 1980).  Equally important is the fact that once contaminated it is difficult and expensive to clean up and the contamination can persist for years, decades or even centuries (Miller 1980, Boyce 1997)

Under the CAA and CWA any citizen may bring suit against anyone including the United States government and other government agencies for violations of the CAA and CWA. Under RCRA citizens are allowed to bring suit against any person or government entity alleged to be in violation and suits may be filed for past as well as present, management or disposal practices that have contributed to a hazard.  Under the SDWA any citizen may commence a civil suit against a party alleged to be in violation of this act and a suit can be brought against the EPA for failure to perform a nondiscretionary duty.

The provisions of these acts allow citizens to sue state governments for violations.  Unfortunately this is a costly endeavor and may not have an outcome on the behalf of the citizen.  In recent years the U.S. Supreme Court has issued rulings stating that states cannot be sued (Seminole Case and Union Gas).  A citizen may also sue for liability and or nuisance instead of under one of these acts.

A problem with suing for an alleged harm caused by the Centralia fire is it is just one potential source of many for contamination leading to the injury.  It could be difficult to prove (other than right at the site) that a health problem, environmental damage or water contamination is solely related to the fire and illegal dumping at Centralia.  Air pollution can travel from other sites and with many mines in the area contamination of water could be from several sources.  Even though the emissions and wastes contain known carcinogens it could take years for a cancer to show up and it may prove difficult and expensive to develop a link to the Centralia fire.  Of course prevention of such injuries is the best recourse.   

According to Steve Jones from PADEP Department of Mine Reclamation the state has decided to let the fire “burn its self out” as any affective measure as at this time is too costly to employ other effective methods for extinguishing or containing the fire.  Unfortunately only time will tell if burning itself out proves to be more costly in the long run.  There are known hazards associated with emissions and the combustion waste of coal and household waste.   

Knowing the dangers associated with the burning and the states current position on putting the fire out the residents remaining in Centralia need to be responsible for any health problems they may acquire with a possible link to said emissions.  Anyone visiting the site that is aware of the danger or anyone who visits for the purpose of illegal dumping should be held responsible for any injury or health problem that could be linked to the burn site.

On the other hand the state of Pennsylvania has some responsibility and thus could be liable for harm or injury.  There are at least 4 paved roads leading into the site with many navigable dirt roads traveling through out the burn area.  These roads allow easy access for illegal dumping, for individuals that use the area for recreation or those who are just curious.  There are indicators that the area may be unsafe such as smoke, the heat of the ground and gaping holes but these are also the same things that bring in curious observers.  On a recent visit I found no signs stating the dangers of the site, there was no “no trespassing” signs and I found only one sign prohibiting dumping.

The state could cut down on the amount of illegal dumping and visitors to the site by limiting or eliminating the areas of easy access.  Fences and or gates could be placed across flat areas and roadways.  The placement of “no trespassing” and “danger” signs would cut down on the number of visitors thus reducing their exposure to toxic substances.

 If illegal dumping is limited or even eliminated and areas cleaned up that contain trash that has not yet burned a potential source of contamination to the air, water and soil can be reduced providing some measure of protection to the safety and health of the public and the environment.

 

HEALTH RISK ISSUES

Risks that homeowners and their families may face due to their choice to live in Centralia include exposure to Carbon Monoxide and other gases released by the fire as well as the possibility of falling into sink holes which suddenly open up due to the failure of the underground pillars of coal as they are burned.  A child has already fallen down into one of these crevasses, never to be seen again.  This is a real concern, as the area has become a tourist attraction.  Upon my own visit to the area a young family was exploring the smoldering debris around a sinkhole.  They had children there as young as six years old.  Children and the elderly are the most susceptible to environmental pollution (News Release, 2000).  Studies have also shown that particulate matter is especially harmful to the elderly.  In several cities the mortality rate among senior citizens has risen on days with higher particulate counts (Francis, 1994).  The unborn fetus is also extremely vulnerable to chemical exposure (Lappe, 1991).  Young children are especially sensitive due to the tendency they have to put things into their mouths, including soil.  Studies have found that children may ingest substantial amounts of soil, up to 200mg per day.  Some children who have a particular affinity for dirt have been found to ingest up to 60 grams of soil in a day (Calabrese, Edward J. 1999).  This poses a serious threat for young children visiting Centralia as shown in Table 7.  One can pick up actual rocks of nearly pure sulfur right off the ground.  Coal mines have also been known to contain arsenic, barium and other heavy metals. 

Table 7.  Estimate of acute toxicity associated with soil pica episodes in young children at U.S. EPA soil screening concentrations (Calabrese. 1999).

Chemical

Soil

Screening Value

(mg/kg soil)

Soil Intake

(g soil /event)

Dose from soil (mg/kg body weight)

Lethal Dose

(mg/kg body weight)

Nonlethal

Toxic Dose

(mg/kg   body weight)

Effects
Arsenic .4

5

25

50

.002

.008

.015

 

1-3 1 Throat irritation, nausea, and vomiting
Cadmium 78

5

25

50

.03

.15

.30

25 .043-.07 GI irritation and vomiting in children
Lead 400

5

25

50

.2

.8

.15

 

ND .02 Decreased ALAD
Nickel 1600

5

25

50

 

.6

3.1

6.2

 

570 .009e Contact dermatitis
Vanadium 550

5

25

50

 

.2

1.1

2.1

 

.86 ND ND

Abbreviations:

ALAD= Aminolevulinic acid dehydratase

GI= Gastrointestinal

ND= Not Determined (no acute toxicity doses in humans were identified)

e Estimated dose based on an assumed body weight of 70kg.

 

There are also large amounts of trash and other refuse that has been dumped into the mine and is still continued to be dumped there.  Trash includes everything from old refrigerators to car tires.  This certainly is not a healthy area for children to be allowed to play in, yet there are no deterrents to keep them and their families out.  This could become a real liability for the state of Pennsylvania.  The land has been repossessed by the state due to its instability from the underground fire.  In spite of this there are few warning signs posted around the sight and no fences to keep people out.  There is more prevention of trespassing around active landfills to keep people out then there are around this burning dump.  Here children are allowed to explore and play freely, something they would never allowed to do at the town dump, yet that is exactly what the Centralia mine fire is.  The fire began in a mine shaft that was being used as the town dump.  The area is still used as a dump and yet this dump has become a tourist attraction where children and their parents can come on a weekend afternoon to explore and play. 

Unique bacteria have also been found in the soil.  These bacteria are heat tolerant and some are even chemobacteria, meaning they live off the chemicals in the gasses coming out of the vents (Dr. Tammy Tobin-Janzen). 

In a study done by the University of Washington, bituminous coal, containing 3.43% Sulfur and sub-bituminous coal, containing .61% Sulfur, were burned to study the evolution of these sulfur bacteria.  Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is the major sulfur species that appeared.  The second species was hydrogen sulfide (H2S).  The total sulfur released from coal is strongly related to the amount of organic matter in the coal.  Centralia coal, which happens to be anthracite, a coal low in Sulfur concentrations, consists of .61% Sulfur and released less then 10.0% of the total amount of sulfur in the coal.  This is approximately .061% of the total amount of sulfur in the coal.  The amount of Nitrogen the coal released was also studied.  Centralia's coal required negative activation energy in order for it to release its stored nitrogen.  Nitrogen released from the coal is converted to nitric oxide as it enters the atmosphere (Zghoul, Ali Mahmoud, 1984). 

Children may ingest these bacteria along with the soil.  No studies have been done to determine the effect of these unique species, as they are very rare and contact between them and young children is also quite infrequent.  However, due to Centralia’s tourist attraction young children are being exposed to these bacteria, which may or may not be harmful to their fragile systems. 

Another risk for these young tourists are the levels of mercury, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates, methane, and metals, including lead, arsenic, nickel, chromium, beryllium and cadmium coming out of the vents along with the nitric oxide.  Nitric oxide becomes ground level ozone once in the air.  This is highly toxic at only 10 micrometers in diameter.  Sulfur dioxide is attributed to respiratory problems in East Germany where it occurs in high levels.  Vaporized lead also results in chemical poisoning to the brain and bones due to the circulatory system adsorbing the lead from the lungs.  Cadmium is also highly toxic, with as little as 5 mg being lethal to humans.  In smaller doses it has been known to cause the “Itai-itai” (ouch-ouch) disease in Japan.  The disease is most prominent in middle-aged and elderly women and is characterized by an extreme fragility of the bones.  Cadmium also binds to metallothionein and is stored in the kidneys.  Once the kidney become saturated, hypothesized to be around age 50, it is secreted into the blood stream and can trigger malignant hypertension.  Mercury is also highly toxic to most organisms.  Methylmercury has caused illness and death due to its accumulation in the food chain (Francis, 1994).  Arsenic is adsorbed through the lungs and gastro-intestinal tract.    The chemical coagulates proteins and can substitute phosphate in chemical processes, preventing the production of ATP.  This results in the organism slowly starving to death and it is unable to produce energy (Manahan, 1989).  Radioactive toxins including Uranium and Thoreen are also emitted in the gases.  These compounds break down into radon, radium, and protactinium, polonium, bismuth and lead.  The breakdown of these radioactive elements in the lung is known to result in and increased risk for lung cancer (Francis, 1994).  These chemicals are produced only from the burning coal. 

There are also tires, plastics and other garbage burning in the bottom of the mine.  Smoldering tires admit various toxins similar to those from the coal.  VOSA, volatile organic compounds, PAH's, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, furons and PCB’s are also emitted.  Plastics burning emit Vinyl Chloride, which is highly toxic to humans.  The best known of the plycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is Benzo(a)pyrene and is found in air, soil and water.  When combined with oxygen in the lungs it is a known carcinogen (Manahan, 1994).   

The children visiting with their parents while I was at the mine stayed for a few hours.  The kids played very close to the vents, as they were curious about them.  This exposes them to high levels of these gasses, which are known to be harmful.  The gasses were in high enough concentrations that I had a headache after being at the area for only four hours.  It is possible that some harm may come to the children who have been exposed to these gases for several hours.  When Sam Frank interviewed Centralia’s mayor, Lamar Mervine, he was told that while they had a carbon monoxide indicator near their bedroom on the second floor, it had never gone off.  This could be due to the fact that they live in a two-story home and the gas would dissipate as its rises from the ground.

 

LIABILITY    

One of the most commonly asked questions about the Centralia mine fire is who is liable? The answer to that question is one of the most convoluted of all answers concerning questions about Centralia. Under Title 30, Chapter 13, section 551 of the United States Code is the Declaration of Policy, which states that  “It is recognized that outcrop and underground mine fires in coal formations involveserious wastage of the fuel resources of the Nation, and constitute a menace to the health and safety of the public and to surface property. It is therefore declared to be the policy of the Congress to provide for the control and extinguishment of outcrop and underground coal fires and thereby to prevent injuries and loss of life, protect publichealth, conserve natural resources, and to preserve private and public surface property.” (Buck, 1991)

            This policy states very clearly that it is the role of the government to properly extinguish outcrop and underground coal fires, but what the policy does not entail are monetary issues. Such issues would include is the fire in an area where it needs to be extinguished or can it be allowed to burn out naturally? Is the cost of extinguishing the fire greater than other fire control remedies such as compensation and relocation of people and property? The Centralia mine fire could have been extinguished when it was first learned there was a fire in 1962 with relatively little cost and effort. Due to a lack of knowledge of the potential danger the fire could cause, improper actions were taken to put out the fire and it grew in size, danger potential, and cost of extinguishment. By the time local, state, and federal officials were ready to take serious steps towards putting out the fire, it had grown so large it would have cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars range making it too large a project for even the federal government to fund. The other option was to move the people from danger by means of compensation, which was first offered to Centralians by the federal government in 1984 due to exposure to noxious gases and subsidence. By January of 1992 with fewer than 100 residents remaining the government declared eminent domain seizing rights to properties.

            The last company to own the mine was Coates Coal Company. Coates Coal Co. was not required to clean up the mining site under the Mining Act of 1872 Mine and Mineral Law, 1998). In the early sixties when mining was no longer profitable operations ceased and the mineshafts were sealed and the rights were conveyed to Centralia and later to the Borough of Centralia. According to modern findings all the shafts were sealed except for one which would be all the fire would need to spread. A short while after the transfer of the mine to the Borough it was declared a town dumpsite. The residents would haul their garbage to the 75 foot wide and 50 foot deep hole and thoughtlessly deposit the rubbish in a pile. Unknown to the Centralians who were happy to find a place to put their trash was that large trash piles have been known to spontaneously combust. This raises the question of whether liability can be placed on the Coates Coal Company for not properly sealing all the mine shafts or on the residents of Centralia for putting possibly combustible material in a coal mine shaft.

            At the time the fire began in 1962, there were no laws governing liability, other than common law and almost no environmental laws at all. It wasn’t until the creation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, which is more commonly known as CERCLA or the Superfund Act, that suit could be brought concerning an inactive site. The primary objective of the Superfund program is to clean up the worst abandoned hazardous waste sites in the country. Owner or operators of an inactive hazardous waste site must notify the appropriate state officials and convey information to them as to the nature of the site. States, in turn, compile this information and submit it to the Environmental Protection Agency for the development of a national inventory of hazardous waste sites. The most serious sites will be placed on the National Priorities List. Those sites not sufficiently hazardous to be on the National Priorities List, or are currently under investigation, are listed in the CERCLA Information System (CERLIS) (USBR, 2000)

            The key component for a site to be classified as a Superfund site is the presence of hazardous material. It seems that Centralia has all the qualities of a Superfund site much like that of Love Canal or Valley of the Drums, but in 1976 the Resource Conservation Recovery Act defined wastes so that Centralia was excluded from Superfund money. The EPA, by administrative choice, “excluded from the definition of “solid wastes” certain materials subjected to “in-situ mining techniques which are not removed from the ground as part of the extraction process.” This is because the EPA did not consider the waste left in place “discarded” or “recycled”, although this is not true for waste that would be withdrawn from the mine such as coal mining waste. The waste removed from a coal mine is “solid waste” but is not considered “hazardous waste” unless there are extenuating circumstances such as contamination from a source other than normal coal mining waste. Mining waste is strikingly different than most hazardous waste in that mining waste constitutes such large volumes and the “hazards” of mining waste can be controlled fairly easily with fairly low cost measures especially when compared to preventative measure for highly dangerous hazardous waste.

            Since coal mining does not produce hazardous waste there is no strict liability involved. Strict liability is “a legal doctrine that makes some persons responsible for damages their actions or products cause, regardless of any “fault” on their part” (http://injury-law.freeadvice.com). A reason why laws seem so “lenient” on mining operations is because when mining was most prevalent in the 1800’s, there was little knowledge about hazardous to workers or to the environment. Profit was the most important issue and it wasn’t until many years later that acts like The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 were passed for miners safety and acts like CERCLA to protect and repair the environment.

EMINENT DOMAIN

            Eminent Domain is one of the major legal issues that has evolved because of the underground mine fire at Centralia.  Currently, all of the property in Centralia has been condemned for the excavation of the mine fire, but there are still residents who are squatting. 

            Eminent domain is defined as the “the right of the nation or state, or of those to whom the power has been lawfully delegated, to condemn private property for public use, and to appropriate the ownership and possession of such property for such use on paying the owner a due compensation to be ascertained according to law,” (C.J.S., 29A).  There are many aspects of eminent domain including what is considered a public use, what property is subject to taking, what constitutes a compensable taking of property, and the rights of the property owners. 

            Under eminent domain, when a property is taken for public use it is condemned.  This condemnation can occur when property is taken for safety reasons, and in some cases for private use that benefits the public.  An example of taking private property for a public use is in mining.  In some jurisdictions mining is so important for society that private property can be condemned for a mining operation.  The mining industry is considered a public use.  This depends solely on the constitution of the state in which the mine is located (C.J.S., 29A).  In Centralia, the property in the town was condemned in order to excavate the mine fire and stop its spread to neighboring towns, to prevent subsidence and gas leaks into the houses. 

            One condition of the power of eminent domain is that there must be a public necessity and this necessity must be combined with a public use.  This necessity does not have to be absolute, but it does have to be a reasonable or practical necessity.   This has to combine the greatest benefit to the public with the least inconvenience and expense to the condemning party and property owner (C.J.S., 29A). 

            Another issue that must be considered when using eminent domain is what constitutes the property being condemned.  By definition it “includes everything which is embraced by the term where used in its legal sense,” (C.J.S., 29A).  This includes not only the soil, but everything attached to it, such as trees, herbage, water, mines, minerals, fences, buildings and other structures.  Any building including houses can be taken or removed under the right of eminent domain.

            The power of eminent domain belongs to the federal government.  It has the “authority to acquire any property within the borders of the United States for those public uses which are within the powers conferred on it by the Constitution, regardless of the uses to which the property is being put,” (C.J.S., 29A).  Within the federal government this power belongs to the legislative branch.  The nature and extent of the taking under eminent domain as well as the time, manner and circumstances under which this power is exercised, the location of the property to be taken, and the purpose to which the property is put are all legislative questions. 

Some of these issues can be judicial, but ordinarily the courts have no concern.  The courts have full authority to determine the proper limits of eminent domain and to prevent abuses of the power.  The courts tend to interfere on questions of necessity, extent and time of taking when there has been fraud, bad faith, or abuse of discretion.  Questions other than public use and compensation are legislative and can not be reviewed by the courts (C.J.S., 29A). 

Another major issue when dealing with eminent domain is the compensation to the property owner.  Compensation means “a full indemnity or remuneration for the loss or damage sustained by the owner of property taken or injured, (C.J.S., 29A).  Not only must there be compensation, but it must be just compensation.  This must be the full and perfect equivalent in money of the property taken, but does not include compensation for any personal losses to the owner.  This compensation must also be certain and reasonably prompt for the owner of the property.  Proceedings for the federal government tend to differ from the state governments.  The amount that the federal government pays is not subject to regulation by the state in which the property acquired is located. 

There are many different factors that can be considered when determining the just compensation for a particular property.  The legislature usually has the authority to prescribe the manner in which compensation is determined. 

There are many specific cases that may or may not receive compensation under eminent domain.  A few of these instances are listed here.  Where damages are suffered generally by all property owners in the area of condemned property, they are deemed consequential or incidental (C.J.S., 29A).  A property owner is entitled to lateral support.  If this support is weakened or destroyed, there must be compensation under eminent domain provisions (C.J.S., 29A).  Injuries to people are not included in takings of property.  Any bodily injury is not compensable under eminent domain (C.J.S., 29A).  Hazardous waste sites are another example that is not covered by eminent domain.  When the government enters a site or adjacent land to clean it up the owners are not compensated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980.  Liability in this situation falls on the party that created the site (C.J.S., 29A). 

There are also many factors that determine how much compensation an owner receives for his or her property.  Congress may require that certain elements of value are paid for even if the constitution does not require payment.  The compensation is measured by the owner’s loss, not by what the taker has gained.  The owner is entitled to the full equivalent in money of the property taken, but is not entitled to more than just compensation.  Consequential damages resulting from the taking are not included in just compensation.  The taker does not have to pay for opportunities that the owner may lose due to the loss of property.  To sum up all of these situations, “the courts must take into account all facts and circumstances bearing a reasonable relationship to the loss occasioned an owner by virtue of his property being taken,” (C.J.S., 29A). 

As a general rule just compensation can be considered to be the fair market of the property.  The market value of a property is defined as “the highest price estimated in terms of money which it would bring if exposed for sale in the open market with a reasonable time allowed in which to find a purchaser, buying with knowledge of all the uses and purposes to which it was adapted and for which it was capable,” (C.J.S., 29A). 

Using this market value is not the law, just an element that can be considered to help determine the just compensation.  This also means that sentimental value can not be included in the compensation.  The market value is not the amount of money that the owner paid for the property, it is the cost or reproduction or replacement less depreciation (C.J.S., 29A).  Any values considered peculiar to the owner or condemner can not be taken into consideration when determining the value of the property.   The market value is not the “speculative or remote value, or what could be obtained for the property under peculiar circumstances, when a greater than fair price could be obtained,” (C.J.S., 29A).  Another aspect that can not be considered is the willingness or unwillingness of the owner to sell their property (C.J.S., 29A). 

Another method used to determine fair market value is by considering similar prices.  If a similar property in or near the town has been sold recently the price it sold for could be considered the fair market value. 

Fair market value is not the absolute method used to determine the value of property; it is just a practical standard.  If a condemnee wants the court to apply a different method to determine the fair market value of their property, they must bear the burden of demonstrating to the court that the value of the property can not be reasonably measured by the fair value approach (C.J.S., 29A).  In some cases the condemned property has no market value or an inadequate market value.  In these cases the elements affecting the market value are disregarded and the intrinsic or actual value of the property, or its value to the owner, may be considered or recovered.  All of the relevant circumstances must be considered when determining the value of the property.   

The relocation cost is another aspect considered with eminent domain.  There are authorities that agree with both sides of this aspect.  Usually the owner can not receive compensation for relocating personal property on land taken for public use.  In some cases relocation costs are recoverable as part of just compensation.  In this case the cost of removing personal property is a proper element of damage (C.J.S., 29A).

 

Under the Federal Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970, anyone who is required to relocate due to eminent domain is entitled to reimbursement for the expenses necessarily incurred.  The purpose of this act was to standardize the type and amount of relief available to dislocated persons regardless of the agency involved.  Under this act, a person is entitled to reimbursement only after the property has been acquired by an agency (C.J.S., 29A).

 

There were a few ways of determining the fair market value of a house in Centralia.  One method considered the market value of the house as if there was no problems from the mine fire. These families also received relocation assistance under the Uniform Relocation Act.  Other families received compensation as their property was with the mine fire, gases and high temperatures, even if this meant they could not afford a similar house in another area with the money they received.  This was because of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.  If the fire were ignored, it would artificially establish some value that is not related to present realities.  This cut the value of the houses by about 20% (Dekok, 183). Pennsylvania’s eminent domain statute barred penalties of this nature, but Centralia was a federal project so the statute was inapplicable. 

 

In Centralia the first three houses were relocated in 1969.  These houses were relocated because of the high temperatures in their yards and basements and the high gas concentrations in their homes (Dekok, 73).  The next eight houses to be relocated were done so in 1980.  These eight houses were located outside of the fly ash barrier.  These families received the fair market for their houses as if the mine fire did not exist.  Also the seven families that currently lived in their houses received up to $15,000 in relocation assistance.  This was funded by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (Dekok, 117).  In 1981 there were 29 families eligible for relocation because they were so close to the fire.  The fair market value of these houses was reduced by 20% and they had only 40 days to accept the offer and find a new location to live.  They did receive up to $15,000 in relocation assistance, depending on where they decided to move.  All but two of these families decided to relocate at this time (Dekok, 189).

 

 On November 18, 1983 the House of Representatives approved a bill containing $42 million for the relocation project at Centralia.  This project was completely voluntary; the properties were not being condemned.  This time the people were given the fair market value for their house, the mine fire was not a deduction.  The money would come from both the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and the Pennsylvania state government.   These families also received the $15,000 relocation assistance money (Dekok, 276).  Between 1985 and 1991 545 residences and businesses of Centralia were relocated (DEP, 1996).

 

In 1992 condemnation procedures were initiated against the remaining 53 properties.  The property owners took legal action against this action and lost.  As of right now there are 36 residences still occupied in Centralia.  These squatters could be relocated at any time if the government decides to enforce the eminent domain (DEP, 1996).

 

When the land that is to be condemned contains minerals the market value of the minerals must be shown with the value of the property.  Usually the property must be considered as a whole, but when different parties own the mineral rights and the land they must be valued separately.  The owner of the mineral rights must also receive compensation for the loss of the minerals on the land. 

 

In 1992 Centralia petitioned under eminent domain that the "surface acquisition and relocation will be a de facto taking of surface areas it owns," (658 A.2d 840; 1995).  Since the Borough of Centralia owns the mineral rights to the property being condemned they feel that they would be abandoning these rights if they leave their property.  There has also been no compensation for these mineral rights from the government in the eminent domain process.  If there were no residents remaining in Centralia, the Borough would no longer exist and the mineral rights would be transferred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Because they would be giving up their mineral rights, the residents remaining in Centralia may be able to argue for just compensation for their subsurface rights as well as the property value. 

 

PEOPLE OF CENTRALIA

            Centralia has been a coal-mining town since the nineteenth century. Its population composed of mostly immigrants coming to America in search of work. It was the quintessential small, hard-working American town until it was decided to use the abandoned coal mine shaft as a town garbage dump. In the summer of 1962 the garbage in the shaft caught fire and began burning what would become the longest burning mine fire in Pennsylvania’s history to date. The fire began what would become an ongoing debate tearing the residents to opposite sides of the dispute and pitting locals against state and federal officials. It seems that the people involved with Centralia can be separated into three groups; locals who want to stay in Centralia, locals who want to leave Centralia, and government officials (state or federal).

          In the early days it appeared as if the fire would be under controlled and eventually extinguished. There had been mine fires before in Pennsylvania and around the world and those were brought under control so the Centralia fire seemed of little concern. In 1967 test drilling revealed that the fire had spread to much larger an area than anyone had thought and in 1969 dangerous levels of carbon monoxide forced some families to evacuate their homes. It was at this point that some of the residents began to understand how dangerous and close the fire and products of it such as gas and subsidence could be. Over the next ten years state and federal agencies would spend $3.3 million on trying to put the fire out. By 1982 the effects of the fire were not as unconscious, a portion of Route 61 had to be closed and rerouted because of subsidence and a twelve-year old boy barely avoided injury when he almost fell into a subsidence hole. It was at this time that a town referendum showed that the residents were, for the first time, in favor of relocating the town by a two-to-one margin. This created a major division between locals who were once friends and even problems within families. In one case a husband and wife were disagreeing about moving or staying and the argument ended up with the husband stabbing his wife to death and then lighting himself on fire.  Residents who did not want to relocate felt as if they were in no danger or could not afford to move.

“We wouldn’t be here if we felt there was a need to move” said Mrs. Womer, a 67 year old resident of Centralia. “There are no signs of danger here. We have not suffered in any way, shape, or form. Why, this is a wonderful place to live. It’s a wonderful place to raise children” (Severo, 1983)

            Some residents began to form opinions about the federal agencies and the validity of their efforts to extinguish the fire. It is known that there is still a great deal of raw coal under Centralia contained in the Buck and Mammoth coal seams. Some estimates claim that there is as much as 40 million tons of pure, profitable anthracite lying under the surface. When the Coates Coal Co. gave rights to the mine to the Borough of Centralia, they also gave the mineral rights. This means that as long as there is a Borough of Centralia, no one can mine in the area without permission from the Borough. Some residents such as Lamar Mervine, who is currently the mayor of Centralia, believe that the government does not want to put out the fire so that the residents will have to move out giving the mineral rights to the government. “The state doesn’t want the fire out,’ claims Mervine ‘They want us out!” This seems to be a generally accepted theory among remaining residents who refuse to move for one reason or another. When interviewed by a member of the Susquehanna Environmental Law class, former Centralian’s claimed they wished that they had not moved. That they took the governments deal because it was a good offer and they thought all the other residents would move shortly after.

            It wasn’t until 1984 that Congress appropriated $42 million relocate Centralia businesses and residences. Between 1985 and 1991 approximately 1,000 occupants of 545 residences and businesses were relocated, most of which were to nearby towns such as Mount Carmel and Ashland. In 1992 the state struck what was considered by the remaining 53 residents to be an “insulting final blow”, Eminent Domain had been declared giving the state rights to the remaining properties.  To this day the few enduring residents that reside in Centralia do not own the property they live on.

 

CONCLUSIONS

            Centralia was once a working class central Pennsylvanian town with over 1,100 residents, most of whom worked in the coal mines.  They carried a strong attachment to their town, and when faced with tragedy, were reluctant to accept the bitter truth- that their beloved town was gripped by an unrelenting inferno that would force it out of existence.  The underground mine fire started in ignorance, spread too far and too fast for the amount of initiate and funding needed to extinguish it.  Now the area is faced with hazardous emissions, dangerous subsidence, and a government that has given in to a “Do Nothing” course of action.  After several attempts to fight back in court, the final outcome was that eminent domain overcame, legally forcing the citizens to vacate the area that carried with it a sentimental value, even more precious than the unmined anthracite that smoldered below. 

 

[1] For specific compounds see EPA article Air Emissions from Scrap Tire

   Combustion available at the EPA web site.

 

 

 

 

 
  Mine Fire History Mine Fire History Historical Photos
  Pictures From Today Mine Fire Chronology Visiting Centralia
  Centralia Then & Now 360? Virtual Tours Scientific Study
  Satellite, Aerial Photos Downtown Panoramic Centralia Books

  

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Knoebels
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Silent Hill & Centralia
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Centralia PA in B&W Infrared
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Through the use of Nitrogen-Enhanced foam the Pinnacle mine fire was extinguished by Cummins Industries, Inc.  Cummins proposes to tackle the Centralia Mine fire and bring an end to the 
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Read this White Paper which evaluates the effectiveness of remotely applied nitrogen-enhanced foam to aid in efforts to isolate and suppress a mine fire.