Dept. of Environmental Protection

Commonwealth News Bureau

Room 308, Capitol

Harrisburg, PA 17120

HOLD FOR MAY 30 CONTACT: Darlene Crawford   (717)787-1323

DEP Urges Remaining Centralians To Accept Relocation Offers

HARRISBURG (May 30, 1996) -- The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has notified the remaining residents of Centralia that health and safety issues associated with the underground mine fire make it imperative to relocate.

Residents moving from Centralia will be reimbursed for the value of their homes and relocation expenses under a special program established in 1985.

In 32 certified letters dated May 28, DEP Deputy Secretary for Mineral Resources Robert C. Dolence outlined the dangers the remaining property owners face and urged them to use the relocation program, offered by the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority.

"We urge you to take advantage of the relocation program. As your former neighbors will tell you, the relocation program provides a real chance to be safe," Dolence wrote.

The danger is posed by a 34-year-old mine fire that continues to travel through an anthracite vein beneath the Columbia County hamlet.

Pointing to state tests that show the underground mine fire continues to burn beneath much of Centralia, the letters from Dolence continued: "The heat from the mine fire threatens to ignite other seams of coal above the burning vein. Sudden and severe subsidence and the release of toxic gases, particularly carbon monoxide, remain constant threats to the health and safety of you and your family."

Open combustion of anthracite occurs at 752 Fahrenheit. If enough oxygen is present, fire can accelerate through anthracite at temperatures as cool as 176 Fahrenheit. DEP tests conducted this past March recorded underground temperatures ranging from 617 to 772 Fahrenheit in the vicinity of three occupied properties. Normal underground temperatures range between 55 and 60 Fahrenheit.

"By remaining, you are assuming the risk that subsidence, gases or other events may result in injury to you or your family," the letters warned.

Subsidence occurs when the weight of the earth over a mined area causes the surface ground to collapse into the mine, taking buildings, automobiles, trees -- anything on the surface -- into the pit. Since the fire is likely to burn away coal pillars left by earlier mining to support the surface, there is a higher probability of subsidence.

Gas problems -- such as the reduction of oxygen in homes located over burning areas; the emission of carbon monoxide, which can lead to death; or the production of hydrogen, a highly explosive gas -- increase as temperatures remain elevated. Of the 29 Centralia subsurface ground temperatures recorded by DEP in March, all but one exceeded the normal range.

The fire started 34 years ago when trash was burned in an old open pit mine. Gas venting from beneath the surface ignited and carried the fire to the Buck Mountain vein of coal beneath much of the town. At the time, Centralia had a population of 1,100.

Between 1962 and 1978, state and federal governments spent $3.3 million on unsuccessful efforts to control the fire.

In 1983, after four years of state monitoring of the fire's movement and federal acquisition of 34 endangered properties in Centralia, a U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) study estimated that $663 million would be needed to extinguish the fire. Route 61, which travels through Centralia, suffered severe subsidence damage as a result of the fire burning beneath it. The commonwealth spent $500,000 to stabilize the road which was later closed indefinitely, nonetheless.

In response to the threat posed by the fire, state and federal officials convinced Congress to appropriate $42 million to OSM in 1984 for voluntary purchase and relocation of affected residences and businesses. OSM ceded administration of the appropriation to the commonwealth along with the deeds for all previously acquired properties.

Between 1985 and 1991, another 545 homes and businesses were sold to the commonwealth and the residents moved.

Because of the increasing threat posed by noxious gases and subsidence, in January 1992, the commonwealth received authorization from OSM to use condemnation procedures to acquire the remaining 53 properties and relocate the remaining residents.

During the next two years, some property owners filed preliminary legal objections to the condemnation procedures. The Borough, as owner of the minerals located under the municipality, brought suit against the de facto taking of coal by condemnation.

In November 1993, the Columbia County Court decided against the Borough. The Court denied the property owners' objections in February 1994. The State Supreme Court also ruled against the property owners in September 1995 and against the Borough in December 1995. On April 1, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the property owners' action, concluding all appeals.

The fire has continued to spread. To date, the commonwealth has spent nearly $40 million. The federal grant provided by OSM to fund the relocation program is currently set to expire on Dec. 31, 1997.

"We are committed to working with the people of Centralia so that they may be comfortably settled into appropriate and safe replacement housing," Dolence said. "Their safety is our only reason for urging relocation."

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