NEWS RELEASE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
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."