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Centralia Mine Fire

Anthracite coal was mined in Centralia, Pennsylvania, for more than a hundred years. What we today call the Centralia mine fire is a direct legacy of the environmental devastation of that era and the failure of either government or private industry to face up to the damage that had been done and the risks that remained. In my book, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire, I tell the story of how an underground fire destroyed Centralia. I witnessed much of the second half of the story and researched the rest.

Centralia was a pleasant community of about 1,435 souls in 1962. On May 27 of that year, with the best of intentions, a fire was set in Centralia’s garbage dump by firemen hired by the borough council. They had always done this, because the dump had always been next to one cemetery or another, and with Memorial Day and many grave visits approaching, they wanted to get rid of the offending odors as best they could.

The firemen piled the trash in one corner of the pit, set it afire and later washed down the smoldering ashes with fire hoses. But this year it went horribly wrong and the fire found its way through a hole in the pit into the vast, black labyrinth of abandoned coal mines that lay beneath Centralia. The borough council tried desperately to put out the underground fire, but after a few days it was beyond their reach. Soon enough, the true origin of the fire would be forgotten–conveniently or otherwise.

Over the next two decades, the people of Centralia watched as repeated state and federal efforts to stop the fire failed either for lack of sufficient funding or political clout. In 1979, after one particularly ill-conceived engineering project, the fire broke through an underground barrier installed in earlier years and moved under the town itself, sending dangerous gases into one home after another and causing the ground itself to collapse. A once pleasant and neighborly community was torn apart by dissension between those who were terrified and wanted to leave, and those, betting the fire would never get to them, who demanded to stay and ridiculed the others for their fears.

In the end, repeated and hard-hitting press coverage of the town’s plight by me and many other journalists forced a resolution. The federal government announced in 1983 that it would simply cost too much and destroy too much of Centralia to put out the fire. Congress then appropriated $42 million to relocate anyone who wanted to leave and the fire was allowed to burn. Today, fewer than 20 people remain and much of the town has been demolished. Centralia and its mine fire symbolize the folly of the notion that man can abuse the environment without consequence.

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