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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


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Mine Emergency Response Program
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And Yet, Centralia  
Still Burns Today
A Look at the Centralia Coal Mine Fire

By Johnathan F. Beltz
March 13, 1998
 

The Fire

 

The tree covered mountains, hills, and valleys of northeastern and mideastern Pennsylvania create many majestic and scenic views. Hidden from view underneath some of these mountains and valleys lie vast streams, obscenely rich with black diamonds, winding their way through the ground. There is a wealth of riches in coal under the ground, but this coal is different from the coal located in the western half of the state, or the coal found in Kentucky and West Virginia, or the coal that is mined from Illinois and Indiana. The coal in eastern Pennsylvania is what is classified as anthracite coal, and is different from the bituminous coal found in the rest of the state, and the rest of the nation. According to a map of coal deposits in the United States, anthracite coal is found in only five states other than Pennsylvania, and in tables of coal production for 1974, Pennsylvania is the only state listed as producing both anthracite and bituminous coal. In the chart's totals of coal production for the United States in 1974, Pennsylvania is the only state listed as having contributed anthracite coal to the total, for it is not mined in the other states, possibly because of the inaccessibility of the location. 1

Anthracite is also known as "hard" coal, the last stage of a carbon deposit before more pressure and time transforms it into a diamond. Before hardening into anthracite, coal is bituminous, or "soft" coal, which is much more plentiful. Before becoming bituminous, coal is brown coal, or lignite, or peat before that. Anthracite is the most desirable of the different forms of coal, as it is a cleaner fuel than the others. It emits less sulphur when burned, it burns at a hotter temperature, it burns away with little remaining waste behind, and creates less air pollution than other coals do when they are burned. Combined with its relative scarceness when compared to the amounts of bituminous coal in the world, it is a very valuable natural resource, one that should be conserved, and not wasted.

Railroads reached the anthracite coal deposits in eastern Pennsylvania around the middle of the nineteenth century, and "King Coal" was underway. Coal "boomtowns" sprung up through the four main anthracite coal fields in Pennsylvania, places with names like Pottsville, Carbondale, Shamokin, Frackville, Centralia, Scranton, Mount Caramel, Ashland, and Hazleton, to name but a few. Please refer to the maps located in the Appendix Of Maps And Pictures for locations of these towns. Centralia enjoyed its greatest years of growth and prosperity in the 1880's thorough the 1890's, with its population peaking at 2761 in 1890, and production of anthracite coal peaking the same year, with 706,000 tons of coal having been mined from the ground. 2

Immigrant labor was often used, and a band of Irish-Americans known as the Molly Maguires committed terrorizing acts of murder and set fires in the hopes of protecting Irish miners in the 1860's. According to legend, many of the people of Centralia sympathized with the group's cause, causing the priest in the town to speak out against them. After he did so, he was later attacked and beaten while praying in the cemetery, by members of the Mollies. "The priest prophesied, so the legend goes, that a day would come when only St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church would remain standing in Centralia, and that the little mining town, founded on a bed of coal, would burn forever." 3

As oil and gas replaced coal as a main source of fuel in the beginning of the twentieth century, Centralia fell on harder times, as its population began to decrease, and other forms of employment had to be found for those who chose to stay. In 1950, Centralia Borough was able to purchase the rights to the coal beneath the town through a new law, and they were the only municipality to take advantage of the new law, while its population continued to decline. At this point in the twentieth century, its population had dropped to 1,986, and nearly all the mining jobs had vanished, forcing the remaining residents to search elsewhere for work.

Coal mining, by its very nature, is a risky proposition. Mines are dirty places, and breathing in all the dirt and coal dust leads to respiratory problems such as black lung, which is common among miners. There is also the danger of cave-ins, that is, the ground above falling into the mine, burying those in the mine. Coal mining also entails environmental risks. Separating of coal in breakers results in culm, large piles of dirt and coal particles separated from the larger coal rocks, a byproduct. Groundwater flowing through abandoned mines becomes dirty, and brown in color. Mine subsidences can result from deterioration of former support structures, or the mining of coal pillars left in place to support the ground above. A subsidence is when the surface suddenly gives way, resulting in a hole in the surface, after having been weakened by removal of the ground beneath it. Mine fires are also a fairly common occurrence, and can be started by a number of methods. This can result in the release of deadly gases underground, where they can seep into houses and buildings from the cellars. Various means for extinguishing mine fires exist, depending on the location, severity, and nature of the fire.

Anthracite coal mine fires are different (and generally more difficult to extinguish) from a bituminous coal mine fire. Bituminous coal typically is closer to the surface of the ground, and lies in level planes relative to the ground. Anthracite coal, however, lies in veins that are very steep, and are often folded over themselves. Because of this difference in nature, different methods must be employed to combat an anthracite fire compared to a bituminous fire, and different methods have varying degrees of success depending on the characteristics of each individual fire. To burn, a fire (coal or otherwise) needs oxygen, fuel to burn, and heat to remain ignited once it has started. Elimination of one of these ingredients will cause a fire to cease.

A popular method of controlling such fires is the total excavation of the area. This amounts to simply digging out the dirt and rock of the area, and has the highest success rate of the main methods in controlling the fire. It is also the only method with a success rate greater than 50%. The down side is that it can also become the most expensive, depending on the size of the fire. It is usually feasible for small fires. A supply of water is also needed to cool the rock and ground as it is being dug, as well as a place to put the dirt. There is also a potential to recover some of the unspent coal as it is dug from the ground.

Another method of extinguishing or controlling a fire is inundation. This refers to using water to surround the fire, and both cool it and cut off the supply of oxygen. One advantage to this method is that the water is applied through small boreholes in the surface, and does not require the destruction of whatever may be built on the land above the affected area. However, there is no guarantee that the water will flow to all areas of the fire. Also, a mammoth volume of water may be required for pumping into the mine for a long time, depending on the size of the fire.

A third method is to flush the mine out with non-flammable material. This is often in the form of a liquid slurry, which can also be injected through boreholes in the surface. The idea is to cut off the air from the fire, but one of the risks is that it may not seal up totally underground, particularly in a hilly region. Settling and drying of the material may also cause it to crack, creating another passageway for air, and defeating the purpose.

Fire barriers, or trenches, can be created to stop the spread of a fire. This is done by digging, and then "backfilling" the trench with a non-flammable material, like clay. The trench must be deep to reach the bottom of the coalbed, and wide to prevent the transfer of heat to the "cold side". This is important, because mine fires need not have a continuous supply of fuel. They can spread across a break in the fuel by transferring the heat, and causing the "cold" side to spontaneously combust. A trench must also be dug far in advance of the fire, for if the fire crosses it before completion, the trench is rendered useless.
Another method of controlling a mine fire is known as surface sealing. As its name suggests, this is accomplished by sealing up the surface of the area below which the fire is located, in an attempt to cut off the supply of oxygen to the fire. This only is effective on fires that are close to the surface. For fires that are deeper into the ground, the seal must be kept over a larger area for a longer period of time, not always a feasible option. "In some cases, a fire control project may have been successful if pursued to completion rather than terminated when allotted funds were expended." 4

By 1960, the population of Centralia, Pennsylvania had further decreased to 1,435 residents, as a result of the decline of the coal industry upon which the town was founded. At this juncture in my report, I would also like to point out that at this point in time, circa 1962, one of my main sources of information casts a markedly different light on the details of the 'facts' of what happened after this point in time than what the rest of the sources choose to present. I believe that the main reason for this is that most published sources of information regarding this case are in the form of government sponsored studies and reports. Most articles and books written probably use these 'facts' in their research, so they contain the same story. However, one book, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy Of People, Government, And The Centralia Mine Fire, was written by a journalist from a neighboring town's newspaper. David DeKok covered the Centralia mine fire for a number of years for Shamokin's News-Item , and then wrote the book after the buyout program had begun, in 1986. His research did not rely on government statements, but rather what he knew from living in the region for so many years. Since he was the paper's main reporter on Centralia issues for a number of years, he had interviewed townspeople on what they knew, that governments would never admit to, like the source of the fire. I personally conducted a telephone interview with Bill Klink, of the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, and the Director of the Federal Buyout Program, on February 23, 1998. During this interview, he also endorsed DeKok's book as probably the best source of information as to what really happened. "As far as I'm concerned, you won't find better information on what really happened over there than in that book. I don't think the federal government or the state government are probably too pleased with the way that book's written, because it lays some of the blame at their doorstep for not doing enough, particularly the federal government. But in all honesty, I think it's a pretty accurate representation of exactly what happened. I think the federal and state governments probably didn't have enough gumption to do what they are responsible to do when they had a chance to do it." 5 Therefore, I leaned more on DeKok's explanations than on the others when the stories strayed from each other.

The Centralia Mine Fire is actually two separate disasters. First, is the fire's destruction of the town, by making it unsafe to live there. Second is the fire's destruction of the community, killing the bonds of friends and neighbors; destroying the sense of security that a small town such as Centralia holds dear, and turning the residents against each other, making enemies out of long standing friends. Because of the magnitude of each disaster, the full account of all that happened cannot be expressed in a small paper. If additional study on this subject is desired, I recommend two sources to be examined. For the full story on the fire itself, and the government's (mis)handling of the fire, please refer to DeKok's book, Unseen Danger. For the story on the impact of the fire on the community, please refer to Kroll-Smith and Couch's book, The Real Disaster Is Above Ground. Full bibliographical information on these two sources can be found in the Bibliography.

It is widely agreed upon that the fire started in an abandoned strip mining pit that was being used as a trash dump, in May, 1962. All sources, save DeKok's book, state that the cause of the dump fire is unknown. According to DeKok, earlier in the year, the Borough Council needed a new landfill to replace the full one, so they suggested using an abandoned strip mining pit where illegal dumping had already occurred. This required the site to be inspected by a state official, George Segaritus, the regional landfill inspector for the State Department of Mines and Mineral Industries (DMMI). A state permit was received only after some holes in the pit were filled with a non flammable material, to safeguard the site in the event of a fire. This way, the flames wouldn't be able to reach the coal underground. Also, at their May 7, 1962 meeting, it was suggested to clean up the new landfill by Memorial Day, as it was located nearby a cemetery which would be the site of ceremonies. That much is in Council's minutes of the meeting. What isn't in the minutes, or any of the other sources of reference, was the Council's preferred method of cleaning the landfills, which was to set them on fire. According to James Cleary, Jr., the Centralia Fire Chief, landfill fires were common practice for cleaning them up, and others in the town back his story, although there is no mention of them ever occurring in Council's minutes, probably because the practice was prohibited by law. Other theories abound on how the fire started, one being that it was sparked from an older mine fire. At any rate, the dump fire was hosed dead with water, but flames appeared again a few days later. After a few more flare-ups in the days that followed, firefighters discovered a gaping hole in the pit that was never filled with the non-flammable material, as it had been covered up by other garbage that was illegally dumped in the pit before it officially became a landfill.

The first attempt to put the fire out was initiated by a nearby mining engineer from Northumberland County, who offered to dig the fire out with a backhoe for a mere $175. He was told that the funds would have to go through proper channels before anything could be done. This was the first delay of trying to extinguish the fire, and it would not be the last. As a result of the fire, the mines were closed to protect workers from the poison gases and while money from the state was being sought to dig it up, another timely process, the fire continued to spread. A Centralia strip mine operator had also asked for permission to dig it up himself at no charge to the state, if he could salvage enough of the coal unearthed in the process to make it worth his while. This also would have ensured the fire extinguished, but by this time, this was a state project, meaning it had to go out on bids, leaving the mine operator unable to quickly start implementing his idea, as should have been done.

The most successful method of extinguishing a mine fire has proven to be to excavate the burning material from the ground. Over the years, various state and federal funded attempts to dig the Centralia fire out proved to be unsuccessful, for a variety of reasons. One is that the projects were designed around the amount of money willing to be spent, not the amount needed to properly do the job. Another is that once a trench had started being dug to contain the fire, it was realized that the fire had already crossed the barrier made by the trench before it was ever completed, rendering it useless. In a radical departure from ordinary procedure, these excavations of land were started before any exploratory drilling had taken place to determine the size and scope of the fire, so that the mines could be reopened again as soon as possible. Drilling would have determined the area in which to dig to be the most effective, but would have delayed the project, so the contractors were forced to hazard a guess by observing steam coming from the ground. Once digging did start, it was only for eight hours per day, with the usual holidays off, another departure from the norm. According to Anthony Gaughan, a retired coal miner who worked beneath the town, "They had it out when they started digging the first time. All they needed was to dig another shift. They were only digging one shift a day. They should be digging three shifts a day when they're digging a mine fire. The always did before that, and since that on every other mine fire job. They had it dug right out on Labor Day, but then took a five day weekend for the holiday." The fire started back up. Many feel that the battle to control the fire at a reasonable cost was lost that weekend.

Once the Borough Council had turned the problem over to the State, they chose to forget about it. At this point, that was easy to do, for it was underground and invisible. This proved to be a fateful decision, for that also appeared to be exactly what the state wanted to do, and as a result, no additional attempts were made until 1967, four years later! In the meantime the attention had shifted to more politically pressing mining problems in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, where a similar fire raged, in Laurel Run. The only notable differences between the two is that while Laurel Run was no bigger than the Borough of Centralia sizewise, it was situated in the middle of the heavily populated Wyoming valley, even though Centralia's fire could just as easily spread through its moderately populated valley. Also, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area had more political muscle and influence, which proved to be the most notable difference.

The next time that the Centralia fire was discussed, in 1967, the ownership of the mining rights had changed, and the new owner wanted to strip mine it to remove his new coal before the fire burned it up. This idea would thereby extinguish the fire, which was now becoming an expensive proposition, expected to cost a few million dollars, and the miner even offered to do it under supervision from the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the agency responsible for not having a solution to the problem. Yet still, officials in Washington deemed that unfeasible, even though it would solve the problem at practically no cost!!!

In 1967, exploratory drilling in Centralia resumed to track the fire's progress, and found the fire much bigger than anyone expected. As a result, the price tag of the proposed containment trench immediately doubled, for it would now have to be much larger, rising the bill to $4.5 million. A decision was made in the upper echelons of the Bureau of Mines to abandon the trench because it would be too costly, replacing it instead with a fly-ash barrier that they knew would be nothing more than a quick fix, and not a real solution to the problem. Considering that the Laurel Run project was expected to cost $4 million, $4.5 million for Centralia was not unreasonable. "The trench concept had been abandoned because it simply was too costly. It would have meant spending almost $5 million to protect real estate with an assessed valuation of $500,000, Flynn said, quoting unnamed Columbia County officials. The cost-benefit ration just wasn't favorable to Centralia." 7 However, this fly-ash barrier was not identified as a quick fix when the agency pitched it to the residents. They told the residents that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread as far as mine fire control was concerned. Now admittedly, fly-ash did work very well in level bituminous mines, but was not suited for pitches greater than 10, as it tended to slide down the mine shafts, and this was known by the Bureau of Mines. The pitch of Centralia's mines is 35, which was also a known fact. "It was a somewhat misleading press release - everyone at the Bureau knew that excavation was the best way, by far, to effectively contain the fire - but one the general public would find reasonable and credible." 8

Politically, and even geographically, Centralia was just in the wrong spot. As shown by the maps in the Appendix Of Maps And Pictures, you can see that Centralia is located in the midst of the Western Middle coal fields, in Columbia County, between numerous coal mining towns in Schuylkill and Northumberland Counties. However, since the neighboring two counties had numerous coal towns, they also had the knowledge and experience necessary to deal with such fires right away. After all, the first estimate for $175 came from Northumberland County's engineer in charge of extinguishing mine fires. Columbia County had no such people or services for Centralia. Columbia County was largely agricultural, except for the southern tip (Conyngham Township) which is where the coal was. Furthermore, to go to Centralia from anywhere else in the county, you had to cross two large mountain ridges, which created a geographic (as well as cultural) boundary, separating it from the rest of the county and associating it more with the neighboring coal region towns of Schuylkill and Northumberland Counties. Had it actually been a part of one of the two other counties, this disaster probably would not have been allowed to occur, as it probably would have been taken care of in a more timely fashion from the start. Columbia County's Board of Directors was largely unfamiliar with the needs and special problems that arise in a mining community, since the rest of the county was basically worlds apart from Centralia's form of livelihood.

Along with the erection of the fly-ash barrier in the late 1960's, a small trench was dug to connect it with an area of rock. Upon digging the trench in 1969, they nearly had the fire under control, but were not allowed to continue digging because neither Harrisburg nor Washington would give them additional money to finish the job, even though documents discovered later have shown that the necessary funds were available. Also in 1969, the first three families were evacuated from their homes and the homes were demolished because of the threat of carbon monoxide (CO) seeping into the homes through the cellar and causing asphyxiation. Little was done about the fire throughout the first half of the 1970's, even though evidence began to show that the fire had broken through the fly-ash barrier in 1972. Also, the many boreholes dug throughout the town over the years began to show that deadly concentrations of CO was building up beneath the town.

In 1977, a new attempt at containing the fire fell victim to countless delays, and scores of disagreements between various government agencies such as the Bureau of Mines, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Resources (DER), and the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM), a newly formed division of the Department of the Interior, of which the Bureau of Mines was also a part of. This also created much bureaucratic bickering and buck passing between the two. Up to this point, the residents had fully believed that the governments would step in and save them, and trust was still present that the right thing would be done. However, this trust and belief began to quickly fade, as a small trench was dug to reinforce the supposedly invincible fly-ash barrier. "The Bureau indicated privately it was only agreeing to the trench to quiet public outcry. In public, it planned to announce the trench was made necessary by a recent discovery that the fire had breached the fly ash barrier. There is no evidence any fire passed through the barrier in 1978." 9

This is also the same year that 746 temperatures were discovered in Joan Girolami's backyard, behind her swimming pool. Vegetables in backyard gardens were discovered having burnt to a crisp. "Residents claimed that their basements were so warm, they did not need to turn on hot water heaters to heat their bathwater." 10 In the meantime, the Bureau had bought detectors to monitor houses for CO, but they didn't get enough of the devices to provide each home that was at risk with a monitor. The monitors were also shown to not be totally effective, not always sounding their alarm when the gases reached hazardous levels. When the monitors did sound, a DER representative was supposed to come and check the house out. If this occurred after office hours, the residents were to call one of the representatives on a list of about 3 or 4 names. However, only one of them was concerned enough to regularly respond to the calls, the others being rather hard to reach. He was also the only inspector that the residents trusted to reassure them that everything was safe after the monitors went off, so he received the majority of the phone calls from the residents. He received so many calls, in fact, that he was then told by his boss not to answer any more phone calls, as he was acquiring too much overtime by doing this repeatedly. 11 The residents were also never told the real standards for concentrations of gases in the air, and a health study was never done. The new agency, OSM, was of little help also. "OSM would prove just as adept as the Bureau in lying to and misleading the Centralia public." 12

The following years, 1979 and 1980, gases from the mine fire continued to affect the residents of the borough. In 1979, the temperature of gasoline in the underground tanks at Coddington's service station was found to be rising, and the tanks had to be emptied, resulting in the biggest news story on the fire since 1969, but the biggest one was still to come. Despite these predicaments, the governmental agencies still wanted nothing to do with Centralia, ignoring the problem whenever possible, and refusing to admit there was anything wrong. They also fought amongst each other as to who should do what, and who should pay for it. A state of disaster was never declared. The Bureau would not admit that the fly ash barrier had failed, and the lies continued. The Pennsylvania Health Department remained secretive of the real effects of these gases, and the Thornburgh administration refused to use State dollars for Centralia. "Something was lost here in the endless corridors of the bureaucracy, and it was respect for human dignity. If Centralians thought government was for the people, they would find reason to change their mind." 13 Gases were also detected at the nearby St. Ignatius school. "The Bureau went so far as to omit the March 20 and March 28 gas analysis reports from "Problems in the Control of the Centralia Mine Fire, " a booklet detailing its findings in its study of the mine fire. Perhaps the Bureau worried that full disclosure of the gas threat to the school would prompt public demands for a major project to stop the fire." 14 As Christine Oakum, a resident of Centralia, put it, "It appears that the government is willing to spend billions of taxpayers' dollars to aid foreign nations who hate this country, but is reluctant to take action to prevent the loss of lives and property of loyal American citizens and taxpayers." 15 The residents had begun to realize that the governments were not acting within their best interests, and were not going to save them from the fire, as had been previously assumed. "The politics of this whole thing are absolutely fascinating, if you really knew about them. It has nothing to do with what's right and what's wrong and what's best for the people. It's not as simple as it may seem." 16 The people initially trusted the government to save them from the fire and to put the fire out and preserve their community, but they were about to get a rude awakening, as the government was just going to let the place burn if they could get away with it. James Watt, Secretary of the Interior even made similar comments, that it should be left to burn because it wasn't big enough to worry about. To borrow a few lines from Bruce Springsteen that he spoke during a 1985 concert in Los Angeles while introducing a song, "Because in 1985, blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed." 17


Demolition of the Coddington service station and residence on Locust Avenue, November 9, 1981

As 1981 got underway, Centralia had a new Congressman, James Nelligan, who wanted to help Centralia in their fight, so he organized a meeting among other Congressmen, Representatives, and other high-ranking government officials in Centralia for February 14, 1981. Accompanying Nelligan that day were State Senator Edward Helfrick, State Representative Ted Stuban, State Representative Robert Belifanti, the acting director of OSM, Andrew Bailey, and several county and borough officials. As they were walking along the street, touring the town, 12 year old Todd Domboski was in his grandmother's backyard. All of a sudden, Todd fell through the ground, in a hole that opened up underneath his feet. Todd fell into a mine subsidence created by the mine fire. A subsidence is created when the surface ground is not supported by anything underneath it because the coal had been removed, or in this case, burned. As Todd fell underground, he grabbed onto some tree roots and yelled for his cousin, who was nearby. His cousin pulled him back out of the Earth, disregarding his own safety, while deadly steam belched out of the hole. After Todd was pulled out of the hole, his grandmother told him to go tell the men on the street, not even knowing who they were. The officials saw Todd caked in mud and yelling about having just fallen into a subsidence, and rushed into the yard to see for themselves. The stream of steam was tested for CO with a portable meter, and it pegged the needle. It was determined that there was sufficient amounts of the gas present in the hole to kill a person within minutes. Todd was taken to a nearby hospital to check for gases in his bloodstream, and Senator Helfrick placed a call to Governor Thornburgh, pleading with the Governor to declare a state of emergency. Thornburgh refused, not even meeting with Senator Helfrick until the following Tuesday, as "Monday was Presidents' Day, and the governor apparently did not want any business matters disturbing his three-day weekend." 18 Upon meeting with the Senator, his position was unchanged - there was no risk.

This event prompted the mine fire to now explode into an international news story, as crews from NBC and ABC appeared, the BBC called, and the Associated Press and Untied Press International began to take an interest in the story, giving it an audience in Western Europe, Japan, and Australia, as well as North America. This coverage then prompted large newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, Newsweek, and Time to send reporters to cover the events as well. The state and federal governments didn't want to do anything about the fire, though. They did finally acknowledge it as a public danger, as the intense press scrutiny wouldn't allow them to ignore the problem any longer. However, they steadfastly refused to declare it a state of emergency! Press statements were carefully worded, labelling the Centralia mine fire a "potential danger;" never an "actual danger"! Admitting it was a true disaster might have led to potentially embarrassing questions about why Governor Thornburgh and Secretary of the Interior James Watt didn't want to help. Watt didn't want to spend any money to help the residents, although he had to do something, so he chose the cheapest of 6 plans presented to him by his assistants.

The next month, on March 19, several neighbors dozed off while watching TV, as a result of the CO gases in the house, and low oxygen levels as a result. One of them (John Coddington) fell out of bed, awaking his wife, who telephoned the neighbors, waking them, as well as calling an ambulance. After the gas inspector checked the house the following day, he found the oxygen levels to be a full percentage point below the previous day's level, and that was after the windows had been open for three hours. He then said,"You're lucky John fell off the bed. If he hadn't, and you'd just gone to bed, I don't think any of you would have woken up again." 19

After a visit by Governor Thornburgh, in which he spewed more lies when asked questions, residents and the press continued to kick and scream, and finally a buyout program to relocate some of the residents closest to the fire was approved. However, they were not given fair market value for their homes, the price being lowered by about 20%, for being near the fire, in contrast to what was promised. The residents later joked about asking the Soviet Union for foreign aid, and held a protest march with signs like "Ask Not What Your Government Can Do For You - It Doesn't Give A Damn," "Why Put Out The People, Put Out The Fire," and "Watt Is The Problem In Centralia." 20

After more bureaucratic double talk, it was decided a referendum was needed to determine if the remainder of the residents favored a relocation program. This referendum passed by a vote of 434-204, and was covered by the CBS Evening News. Federal and state spokesmen predictably dismissed the referendum as worthless. "Mrs. Kleman did not believe that OSM treated her fairly. 'No, for heaven's sake,' she said. 'You can see this house. It's a perfect house. There's not a thing wrong with it. I mean, to build this house today... They gave me the price of a fire-ridden home. They gave me $26,500. You couldn't build this house for $80,000.'" 21

"There's no public health problem in Centralia," according to Dr. James Fox, the new director of the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Adding to his statement, he then declared that "No Centralia home has ever had a dangerous level of gases." After a public uproar when the story hit the paper, he then denied that he made the remarks. This painted the perfect picture of the State government's attitude about the problem with Centralia - that there was no problem. 22

In 1982, a new mining engineer, Robert Brennan, was employed by the Bureau to determine the extent of the fire, and he found borehole temperatures within the borough limits to be of the 500F temperature range, meaning only one thing. The fire was underneath the town. The local paper telephoned him to ask him about what he had found, and he told them the truth about the temperatures, and that the fire was also now underneath State Route 61, the main 4 lane highway leading out of town to the south, much to the dismay of Governor Thornburgh. The newspaper in Harrisburg picked up the story, as did the AP. "The coverup of M-2 had been exposed, and the state had egg on its face." The Governor was in a tight election race, and ordered Brennan to be immediately fired. He wasn't, but a gag order was placed on him. "The officials tried to persuade him to shade the truth when he talked to the press, but Brennan refused. 'It only comes out one way,' he said." 23

In January of 1983, borehole temperatures on the berm of Route 61 indicated temperatures of 770F, with less than 6 feet of ground between the road and the mine chamber. A few days later, "a crack opened across the southbound lanes of Route 61. Safety dictated the highway be closed immediately, but the Thornburgh administration stubbornly refused to do so." 24 PennDOT then closed the road as the crack widened, and the temperature had risen to 853F. Before this, a sizeable contingent of residents in Centralia maintained the position that there were no problems, but once the road was finally closed, all the residents finally realized that their village was about to be destroyed by the fire, waking everybody up, if only for a while. An independent engineering study was released by GAI in 1983, revealing that the fire was worse than anyone thought, and was definitely beneath the town. A trench through the town was recommended to stop it, at a price of $62 million, quite an increase from the $277,000 projected cost of the same trench in 1963. Total excavation of the area where the fire was burning would cost an estimated $660 million. Somehow, that makes all the previously rejected 'expensive' options of digging the fire out in the past look much cheaper. They turned down two free offers, one for $175.00, and numerous projects were halted for lack of money when less than $5 million would have finished all of them, combined. Another vote was taken as to resident's sentiments toward relocation, and again it won, this time by 345-200. This time the idea finally became a reality, as the main federal buyout program began.

A sum of $42 million was allocated from the federal government for the buyout and relocation of homes in Centralia in 1983, and it started off as a voluntary project, as Governor Thornburgh assumed that everyone would want to leave, so he did not make it mandatory. The residents who wanted out had their homes appraised, and this time there was no 20% deductions for the penalty of living above a fire. The first home was demolished on December 14, 1984, and others followed within the next year. The relocation period was scheduled to end on the last day of 1986, and approximately fifty households remained in Centralia, those who had refused to leave all along. Residents participating in the program received between $22,000, and $35,000 for their homes. Could you buy a new home for $35,000 in 1984? Mary Gasperetti moved to a new home in Mt. Caramel, at a cost of $62,500. Joan Girolami commented, "I'm scared. Hey, we're giving up our home, going back in debt. We hadn't had debts since 1964. So I can imagine how the elderly feel." 25

Since residents still remained in the borough, nothing could be done about building the promised trench which was the main reason for relocation in the first place. In 1991 these people still resided in Centralia, and it was apparent that they were not going to leave on their own accord. By this time, Thornburgh was no longer the Governor, and his replacement, Bob Casey, was in the nearing the end of his second term. As a result, Casey changed the voluntary program to an eminent domain program, knowing that it would be challenged by the residents in a court of law, and he didn't want to be in public office when it was. 26

As expected, the change was challenged, for the residents hired a Philadelphia lawyer to represent them. The case started in the local courts, progressed to Commonwealth Court, and eventually reached Pennsylvania's Supreme Court. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to hear the case, so they moved on to the United States Supreme Court, which also refused to hear the case. This gave the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania eminent domain over the remainder of the properties in the Borough of Centralia, which included at the time, a municipal building and post office, a few businesses, about thirty houses, and a church or two, one of which was the St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, predicted by the priest in the 1850's to be the last building standing while the town burned, as mentioned earlier.

Pennsylvania's current governor, Tom Ridge, has yet to exercise the state's new power of eminent domain in the Centralia case, although they are studying it. I conducted a telephone interview with Bill Klink, who is the Director of the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, the organization that supervised the buyout. He assumes that Ridge is waiting until after his probable re-election to a second term this November, 1998. Of the initial allocation of $42 million, approximately $5 million remains to be used for the final residents, as the first $37 has been spent on the acquisition and relocation of the first 800 properties. While Klink admits that 800 properties isn't a thriving metropolitan center, its still a significant number of properties to acquire. "I'm only a layman, so maybe I'm just speaking out to ignorance, but one of the things that kinda bothers me is that this fire's done a lot of things that the experts said it would never do. They said it wouldn't jump here, it wouldn't go there. It wouldn't go across the road up by the Catholic Church, it wouldn't go across the road to Big Mine Run, and its done all that. They also say well, it won't go to Mt. Caramel, and it won't go to Ashland, because of the way the coal seams run, or because there's rock in place or there's water table there. I don't know if anybody really knows that. That's what scares me. This fire seems pretty powerful, almost like a force of nature, so to speak. How do you know what anything will do when it gets like that? Not that I'll ever see it, probably, but I'd be very concerned in a couple hundred years from now that an area like Mt. Caramel or Ashland might be threatened. And while they're not New York City either, either one of them is a heckuva lot bigger than Centralia was. Then what happens? Maybe then the government says, 'Gee, maybe we should have spent that half billion or billion dollars to take this fire out.'" 27

Until coming to Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1995, I was born and raised in Locust Township, Columbia County, near the Village of Numidia, located about 7 miles north of Centralia on Route 42. My valley is a largely agricultural region, and is located north of the two large mountain ridges (which I mentioned earlier) that alienate Centralia from the remainder of the county, and the coal fields. The fire cannot come into the valley where I live, because while the fire is only about 7 or 8 miles south of me, those miles represent the boundary of the coal region, for there is nothing under the last 6.5 miles for the fire to burn - there is no coal there. That much is a fact. I am too young to remember Centralia as a lively, full town, before the buyout started eliminating the houses, but I do remember seeing houses with the blood red numbers spray painted on them for identification processes during the demolitions in the mid 1980's. When Route 61 was closed in 1983, it was reopened about five months later, after an effort was made by PennDOT to stabilize the ground below the road at a cost of about a half million dollars. I do remember riding over that section of the road, and even driving over it, before it was closed again in 1993, and has yet to be reopened. Even then, after it was stabilized in 1983, I remember there being a large dip in the road, all the way across all four lanes, and about twenty to thirty feet long. It probably dipped down in towards the ground for about two feet. You could smell the sulfur just by driving past that bend in the road where the fire was near the surface, even at 50 miles per hour with the windows up. The hillside along the road was burnt and charred, with the trees a ghastly white, and steam and smoke billowing from the ground. According to the official sources, the trench was promised to Centralia after the buyout. However, money was only allocated for the buyout and relocation; not a dime has been allocated for the trench. Now granted, not everyone is out yet, but once they are, then the immediate need to extinguish the fire for safety reasons of the residents will also vanish, meaning the media force that propelled the buyout effort will not exist for the trench, so one has to wonder if it will ever actually be built. As I said, I've lived there all my life except for college and co-op, and I've never heard any mention of building a trench to stop the fire until I started reading books to prepare for this report.

The St. Ignatius Church, the symbol of the aforementioned curse placed on the town, was finally torn down last September, in 1997. The church had a wondrous interior, with awe inspiring craftsmanship. It contained pink marble in its interior walls that was imported from Italy, but not anymore, as it was bulldozed to the ground. It did not fulfill its prophecy of being the last building left standing, but it came remarkably close.

Continue to The Community

 

 

 


 
  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

  

Other Interesting Things

 

 


 

So you want to Visit Centralia PA?  What you should know before you go to Centralia PA.

 

The Real Disaster Is Above Ground: A Mine Fire and Social Conflict

 


















 

What's near Centralia?

Plan your visit around one of Pennsylvania's best kept secrets located only 15 miles up the road from Centralia...


Knoebels
Amusement Park

Click Below for
 more details...

Knoebels
Amusement Park

 


Silent Hill & Centralia
Centralia PA inspires screenwriter Roger Avary during the making of the movie Silent Hill.
Read More Here...

 

Remembering ...
Byrnesville PA
By Mike Reilley

 
  Books about Centralia
  Maps of Centralia
  Around Town Today
  Local Attractions
 
  Personal Notes
  Additional Reading
  Haunted Centralia?
 
  Gerry McWilliams and
  the album "Centralia"
  
  Silent Hill Inspiration
  Other Mine Fires
  Search Centralia
  Centralia Sites/Books
  
Panoramic Virtual Tours:
Mine Fire Hot Spot
Downtown Centralia Mainstreet Centralia Damaged Hillside
  
 
  Centralia Infrared


Centralia PA in B&W Infrared
Infrared Photography
by Donald Davis

Video Tour
in Infrared of
Centralia PA
by Donald Davis

  

The Little Town That Was
by Donald Hollinger
 
  
Made in U.S.A. - 1987 movie that was filmed on location in Centralia PA See the opening Scene that started in Centralia during the peek of the mine fire disaster

 
 

 

Is Centralia Haunted?
Explore the possibility

 
The Real Disaster Is Above Ground: A Mine Fire and Social Conflict
 
  

Is there Hope
for Centralia?

Maybe...

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 
40 plus year fire.

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.