May 3, 1998

Mine fire still rages beneath tiny town

By Lynne Glover

Lanna Mervine is happy to make her home in Centralia, the central Pennsylvania community that in most ways no longer exists.

"It's nicer now than it ever was," said Mervine, one of the 42 residents who remain in the Columbia County town ravaged for decades by an underground mine fire. "It's like a big park."

Centralia may be park-like, but only because all but 30 of the 500 houses and businesses that once stood there have been erased and replaced by fields. Gone, too, are most of the 1,300 Centralians who lived there until 1985, when the federal government bought their houses.

Fourteen years later, the Centralia Mine Fire still burns. As many as 450 acres might be burning now - up from the 350 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimated in the mid-1980s.

"It's cooking right along, just like it has been for years," said Steve Jones of the DEP.

The state agency continues to monitor the fire each quarter and to respond to reports of new sinkholes or fire outbreaks. "But we don't send staff up there unaccompanied for safety reasons," Jones said.

Ultimately, as much as 3,000 acres could be consumed by fire. Nearby towns are not believed to be threatened because the coal outcrop, or area where the coal seam ends, ultimately will stop the raging fire.

In 1983 a study estimated it would cost $663 million to extinguish what some call "the grandaddy" of all mine fires. One year later, Congress set aside $42 million to acquire homes and businesses and relocate residents because of the dangers the Centralia fire presented.

The exodus ensued: Between 1985 and 1991, more than 540 homes and businesses were relocated.

Today, ask for directions to Centralia in neighboring Ashland, and an old-timer quips, "Where can you get buried and then cremated for free? Why the cemetery in Centralia, of course!"

Claude Downing of the Office of Surface Mining, for one, will never forget that cemetery. "It was more eerie than anything else," Downing said, recalling his visit to Centralia in the early 1980s. "Flames were shooting out above the tombstones in the cemetery. I was not prepared for that. This was an image that you just don't ever forget."

Today, no flames are visible on the surface but visitors see plain evidence of the fire. Fields and smoking hillsides are littered with burnt, bleached-white or scorched-black trees and smoldering stumps.

The fire is easy to smell, too. Sulfuric smoke pours out of cracks in the earth and lingers in the air.

The main highway into town, Route 61, is barricaded to traffic - the reason obvious during a walk down the deserted, curving road. An earthquake-like fault splits the asphalt and steady smoke streams from the surface. Near the crack, the heat from the fire easily can be felt.

Welcome to Centralia - population 42 and falling. But the people, mostly elderly, who remain there don't plan on moving. Instead, they're fighting the federal government's claim of eminent domain on the properties that remain.

"We don't own our home. We don't even pay taxes any more," explained Lamar Mervine, Lanna Mervine's husband, mayor of Centralia and lifelong town resident. But the Mervines aren't happy about that.

"This fire has been burning for 36 years and it's never harmed anyone," he said. "We like it here. This is the nicest town in the region. And there is no reason for us to move. None whatsoever."

But DEP believes the remaining Centralians should move because the area is an unsafe place to live. Dangerous sinkholes exist, with the potential for more subsidence at any moment. And there are toxic fumes to contend with, as well as the heat and damage the fire has created.

"Our main interest is in the health and welfare of those people who are still living there," said Lauren Cotter, a spokesperson with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development in Harrisburg. The state agency is serving as a liaison between Centralia residents and the federal government.

The Mervines don't believe the government is looking out for their best interests or their safety in wanting them to move. They've recently hired a new attorney to try to help them win the battle to stay in their beloved town.

"There's 40 million tons of coal still under this town and Centralia Borough still owns the mineral rights," Lamar Mervine said. "I think (the government) wants to go back and mine it out. The coal companies are probably pushing to get in here."

Cotter said the state isn't interested in any coal rights, and that if the town of Centralia were to be dissolved, the rights likely would be transferred to the town or county it merges with.

Thus far, the remaining residents have resisted the government's firm, but patient, demands they leave - even after the state Supreme Court ruled against the property owners' objection to condemnation procedures in 1995.

"The fight is over," Jones said. "They exhausted their last appeal a long time ago. They have nowhere else to go in the legal system."

They appear not to be going anywhere else either. "So far we're holding our own," Lamar Mervine said.

"It was a shame. It was a shame," said Jerry "Slavi" Wysochansky, about what happened to Centralia. Although Wysochansky moved out of town in 1990, he returns frequently to see his friends who gather regularly at what once was the center of the community.

"This used to be a town," Wysochansky said. "There were five churches, seven saloons, a school, bank, store and post office. Right here where we are sitting was a hotel."

Now there is nothing. Just a brightly painted yellow bench that sits next to the red, heart-shaped sign that reads "We Love Centralia."