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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

September 2000


Cooking Centralia: A recipe for disaster

It took the near death of a 12-year-old boy in 1981 to garner international media attention. A 16-year-old cousin rescued the child when the ground caved in beneath the young boy's feet — revealing a 30-meter-deep hole, out of which spewed lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide.

John Memmi

Along with Pennsylvania’s abandoned mines come some of the worst underground mine fires in the country. Unlike natural disasters that can quickly unite communities in their struggle to rebuild, mine fires are examples of technological disasters that, when ignored, can gradually tear communities apart.
 Initial inaction to put out a small underground mine fire has led to the slow ruin of a town in northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields. Indeed, the coal seam is still burning beneath the streets of Centralia Borough. Action is needed now to quell the potential for other burning infernos, lest the story of Centralia be repeated.

The fire

It started in May 1962. In search of landfill space, Centralia Borough Council decided to take advantage of an abandoned stripping pit near the town, one already used as an unregulated dump. Before a landfill permit could be issued, a commonwealth inspector required the council to fill holes in the pit with incombustible material. But they missed one.
A trash pile at the base of the pit’s north wall covered a gaping hole 4.5 meters wide and 1.5 meters high. Efforts to clear the pit, located near a cemetery, started before Memorial Day. The borough set fire to trash in the pit. Flames licked across the garbage and into the hidden hole and ignited the two-meter-thick Buck anthracite seam, which dips steeply beneath Centralia.

A local mining engineer said he’d excavate the fire with a backhoe for $175. But nobody followed through on the idea. The fire seemed of minor concern, causing little apparent damage. In 1967, exploratory drilling revealed the fire encompassed a larger area than experts had thought, inching its way closer to the borough. In 1969, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide drove three Centralia families from their homes. By 1978, state and federal agencies had spent $3.3 million, unsuccessfully trying to control the growing disaster.

It took the near death of a 12-year-old boy in 1981 to garner international media attention. A 16-year-old cousin rescued the child when the ground caved in beneath the young boy’s feet — revealing a 30-meter-deep hole, out of which spewed lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide. Centralia’s heightened visibility also attracted increased attention from national, state and regional elected officials. A referendum at this time showed Centralia’s residents favored relocating the town by a two-to-one margin.

  Cracks along state Route 61 forced a permanent
   detour around the town. At top: A fresh vent 
   releases smoke from the ground.
   Images courtesy of James Fogg.

In 1982, borehole temperatures of 260 degrees Celsius beneath the borough indicated the fire had ignited the anthracite directly below Centralia. Fire also raged beneath state Route 61, the main four-lane highway on Centralia’s southside. Temperatures beneath the road reached 455 degrees Celsius and heat-induced cracks forced state environmental officials to stabilize the highway in early 1983. Later that year, Congress appropriated $42 million to relocate Centralia businesses and residences.

Between 1985 and 1991, Pennsylvania relocated approximately 1,000 occupants of 545 residences and businesses, at a cost of $40 million. In 1992, the state commenced condemnation procedures against 53 remaining properties. Property owners filed objections to these procedures, but the courts denied them. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against their appeals in 1995. A year later, Pennsylvania notified Centralia’s 32 remaining property owners that fire-related health and safety hazards demanded their relocation. The commonwealth has yet to evict Centralia’s roughly 40 remaining residents.

Today, toxic gases and subsidence are ongoing hazards, and fire-generated heat has ignited anthracite seams above the burning vein. The streets are eerily barren. Few buildings remain, but reminders of underground mine fire are plain: burnt, bleached or scorched trees and smoldering stumps punctuate the landscape, cracks criss-cross roads, acrid sulfuric smoke billows from fissures in the earth, and the ground is hot to the touch. Fire has propagated in the subsurface over a 180-hectare area, with the potential for consuming as many as 1,215 hectares. The fire, which may burn for 100 years, spreads erratically, with months of no spreading or months in which it spreads as much as 215 meters.


Unlike natural disasters in which hazards and responses are typically well known and experience is vast, technological disasters like Centralia’s underground mine fire are fraught with uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance. Scientists and policy-makers can offer no certain solutions, and governmental emergency management agencies are poorly prepared to handle the problems.

No formal policy exists for responding to technological disasters, although relocation is being used more frequently. Policy can help to define elements of recovery from technological disasters and can provide guidelines for helping communities and individuals cope with such disasters. Such policy might include: central management of recovery; consideration of individual and community recovery, along with environmental recovery; and enabling residents of affected communities to assist in recovery, especially in lessening intracommunity conflict.

In Centralia’s aftermath, it is clear that underground mine fire prevention throughout Pennsylvania is paramount. Aggressive and complete treatment of nascent abandoned mine fires is critical. Citizens must exercise their rights, especially to spur elected officials into tangible, meaningful action. Media involvement to heighten awareness also plays a key role. Pressure must be brought to bear as soon as possible. Imagine Centralia in 2000 had such pressure been applied in 1962.

Link to the sidebar on underground mine fires.

Memmi is a GIS and database specialist with the Senate of Pennsylvania and principal of the geoscience-consulting firm, Apex Technology. He earned his doctorate in geological sciences from Ohio State University.

Other Activity

A major earthquake of 7.0 preliminary magnitude hit Russia’s Sakhalin Island on Aug. 5, wounding at least eight people and damaging 1,300 homes. The quake originated 10 kilometers below the surface.

Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano exploded twice on Aug. 4. Ash reached the southern outskirts of Mexico City, 40 miles to the northwest. Officials reported that this activity is the strongest occurrence of the last two years, during which time Popocatepetl has erupted regularly.

The first hurricane of the season, Alberto, formed over the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 4, with winds quickly intensifying to 86 miles per hour. As of Aug. 8, forecasters did not expect the storm to grow stronger, and the storm posed no threat because the closest land mass was the Leeward Islands, more than 1,400 miles away, says Stacy Stewart of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
More than 60 major blazes covered nearly 1 million acres in 11 Western states on Aug. 7, said the National Fire Information Center in Idaho. The fires in Idaho and Montana intensified. The numerous wildfires kept Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park closed. However, firefighters made headway against California and Utah fires. It is the worst fire season in 50 years, officials say.

At right: Smoke is visible above Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. 
Image courtesy of SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight
Center and ORBIMAGE.

Spreading wildfires forced the evacuation of thousands of people in northeastern Spain, near the popular coastal resort of Rosa in early August. Authorities reported that a total of 12,000 acres in the province of Catalonia were charred. Flames also spread to the region of Llanca and the Cap de Creus Nature Park. Although 19 airplanes helped fight the fire in the air, a strong northern wind strengthened the flames. Catalan Interior Minister Xavier Pomes said that a farmer burning off stubble in his fields could have ignited the fire.

A strong eruption on July 27 opened a new crater on White Island, New Zealand. The crater is about 120 meters by 150 meters in size, and discharged a reddish-brown colored gas and ash plume. 




Bridget Mulvey and Christina Reed compiled Geophenomena.

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