Centralia struggle still burning

  Published On: Friday, January 28, 2000

By Caroline Glassic

Staff Reporter

caroline_g@newsitem.com

CENTRALIA - Even as it approaches its fourth feverish decade, the Centralia mine fire is still hot news worldwide, as evidenced by an article appearing in The Times, Britain's leading newspaper, on Jan. 4.

The article centers on the story of the struggle between the few "stubborn souls" who remain and the state - still pursuing their removal from the burning rubble below.

And the struggle is showing no signs of burning out, either.

"The state's position is that they need to leave, but they are taking no aggressive action to make them leave," said Bill Klink, executive director of Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, when contacted Thursday morning about the news. He added, however, that other legal proceedings are in the works.

"Eminent domain has been declared in...1992," Klink said. "They are residing on state land. And, theoretically, legal proceedings could begin within an hour to force them to leave."

Presently, however, they are involved in a legal process to permit entrance into the remaining homes - fewer than 20 - to accurately determine just acquisition and relocation compensation, required by state law.

"They won't let us in their homes," said Klink, adding that the Boards of View, a local hearing board, has been addressing the matter for the last couple of years.

"There's nothing holding up the removal of the remaining residents," said Klink, explaining that the current legal proceedings are more of a prudent plan to avoid a delay later on.

"If we come up with a value now, the residents have up to a year afterwards to file a grievance - this way, we will avoid that," Klink said.

Among the stubborn souls still resisting relocation is 83-year-old Mayor Lamar Mervine, who believes that the state has ulterior motives.

"I'm going to stay here as long as possible," protested Mervine. "There has never been a casualty of any kind, no one has ever been hurt, no property has ever been damaged."

"Right now, there is no danger whatsoever," said Mervine, calling the doomsayers "a bunch of liars and thieves."

Questioned as to what the motive might be, Mervine said: "There's only one reason - the borough owns the rights to 40,000 tons of coal.

"There's a fortune to be made here."

Mervine said his support is strong, though small in size. "We have the support of our own people," Mervine stated, adding that some state government representatives have expressed their support.

Klink foresees that the case involving relocation compensation would probably be decided by the end of the year. Explaining the lack of action over the years, Klink said that the matter was in legal limbo and went through the appeals process up to the highest authority - the United StatesSupreme Court.

Meanwhile, the fire below is not negotiating; it spans a 450-surface-acre area and still grows.

"It has grown," said Steve Jones, a geologist with the DEP Abandoned Mine Reclamation department, who was reached Thursday morning for comment. Jones noted that the most visible parts of growth were along the south edge of the borough of Centralia, behind the cemetery and on the west side of the cemetery, along the mountain.

Secondly, though not so visible, growth was seen to the west of Route 61, where the road is closed, according to Jones. "It moved westward a pretty good piece." And the third place, also not so visible to the public, according to Jones, is east of Big Mine Run Road in strip mining and deep mining areas.

"None are a surprise, though," said Jones, noting that GIA Consultants of Monroeville predicted such movement in its 1983 report.

What is the fire's rate of growth?

"Erratic," said Jones. "At times it's been idle for months and months and months, while at other times, maybe within three to four weeks it would spread 600-700 feet."

Within the GIA report, the "area of probable burn" - or the "only area left to burn," as Jones put it, was a 3,000-acre surface. Jones said the fire would be limited by the absence of coal, mine pools of water and solid-rock faults within the mines. "There aren't any towns over this 3,000-acre surface area," said Jones, adding that abandoned strip mines are within that "area of probable burn."

"And, yes, there is a continuing danger related to the mine fires that is twofold," continued Jones.

"First, the fires are frequently associated with subsidence events," said Jones. "Secondly, what is not so visible, are the deadly gases that could secretly seep into homes, namely carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide, which are generated by the combustible process in the mines and migrate upwards."

Jones said the long history of gas surfacing "kicked off the entire relocation efforts due to a concern for lives" in the early 1980s.

"About 12 families were called for an emergency relocation," said Jones. "And, it 'snowballed' after that," paving the way for the approximately 620 homes and business being moved, at a cost of a round-about allocation of $42 million in federal funds.

The London Times article can be accessed through the archives of The Times' website at http://www.the-times.co.uk

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