Published by the American Geological Institute
of the Earth Sciences
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.
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.
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
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.
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Bridget Mulvey and Christina Reed compiled Geophenomena.