Vantage Point: Safety or Fraud?

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About six years ago, as I chatted with a client as he drove us through northeastern Missouri to visit a work site, the inevitable questions of origins arose. Mine is a complicated tale of a family on the move from coast to coast, but his was simpler: "I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania I’m sure you’ve never heard of, Centralia." I turned toward him in sudden surprise and replied, "Oh, I know where that is! It’s the town on fire." He looked at me with a startled expression, then turned back to the task of driving and said with a grimace, "I didn’t know it was so famous." But it was then, and it may be about to become more so now.

Centralia, located in Columbia County on the cusp between central and northeastern Pennsylvania, used to be just one of many small coal mining communities surviving on the basis of what was below the surface rather than anything of particular attraction in the borough itself. A few bad decisions, however, beginning with situating a landfill in an old strip-mining shaft in 1962, resulted in Centralia’s current near ghost town status. A small fire meant to improve the landfill’s appearance and remove any vermin was thought to be under control, but new flames and smoke erupted after the fire supposedly had been extinguished. The mixture of gases from both the landfill and the coal mine had started a slow burning fire that apparently was treated as fairly insignificant, so that even months later little effort was expended to fully extinguish it. But this allowed it to become an uncontrollable underground inferno, eventually drawing in both state and federal agencies over the next six years in attempts to quell the resulting toxic gases and surface subsidence.

By 1983, the estimated cost to quell the fire was up to $663 million, and the following year Congress appropriated $42 million to fund a voluntary residential and business relocation project resulting in demolition of those structures. About 1,000 residents took up this offer and the remaining 53 residences were served with condemnation notifications in 1993. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Route 61 subsided to the extent that it eventually had to be closed through town.

But condemnation and monthly notices of repossession have not succeeded in uprooting a last handful of holdouts, and in March of 2010 those four banded together to file suit against their final eviction by Pennsylvania officials. Their claim is that they are the subjects of a "massive fraud", that underground temperatures have gone down dramatically, and that a 2008 Department of Environmental Protection study found emissions of toxic gases not to be a problem. After all, none of the remaining residents has ever been sick as a result of the fire. And, they say, the fire no longer endangers their homes, if it ever did. Instead, the residents claim a mineral rights grab is in play. State officials, of course, counterclaim that the fire still poses a health threat, and that its temperature only appears to be reduced because it has probably followed coals seams further underground.

When mining was no longer profitable in the early 1960s, the last company to own the mine (Coates Coal Company) sealed all but one mineshaft and conveyed its rights to Centralia. As a side note, this last unsealed site was, of course, the one the Borough declared as its new dump in 1962, ignoring the facts that (1) it only takes one open shaft to allow a mine fire to spread and (2) large trash piles are known to combust spontaneously. Because the Borough of Centralia apparently owns the mineral rights to the properties while the state condemned only the surface areas, remaining residents believe that leaving their properties would amount to abandoning their rights. Without residents, Centralia would cease to exist, automatically transferring mineral rights to Pennsylvania. But the government has paid no compensation for mineral rights in any eminent domain proceedings. Meanwhile, the holdouts also hope to pursue a federal civil rights lawsuit to net some funding to rebuild Centralia.

Underground mine fires are apparently not a rarity, even ones that last for years. Can the state prove that health problems, environmental damage, or water contamination is directly and solely related to Centralia’s fire? Pennsylvania’s responsibility for public roads cause it some worries about liability for injury as a result of road subsidence, and its responsibility for overall air quality raises questions about overall harm to health. As a tourist attraction, the possibility of someone falling into one of the sink holes (already having happened at least once, to a local resident) is yet another liability. If the state fails on health arguments, it may dispute Centralia’s ownership of the coal beneath it based on ambiguous or uncertain legal documentation of the borough’s ownership.

Fly ash, carbon monoxide and sulfuric gases, smoke and steam, high temperatures that can be felt on the ground’s surface­ these are the reminders of what goes on beneath the remains of the Borough of Centralia and of its former anthracite coal industry. Although the last remaining residents apparently think of the borough as open space rather than a ghost town, in 2002 even its zip code was eliminated. But if the current suit fails and Centralia is fully eradicated, will we remember the incremental threats of half measures and complacency that destroyed it?

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 210Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE