Centralia mine fire

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The Centralia mine fire is a coal seam fire that has been burning underneath the borough of Centralia, Pennsylvania, United States since at least May 27, 1962. The fire is suspected to be from deliberate burning of trash in a former strip mine, igniting a coal seam.

The fire burns in underground coal mines at depths of up to 300 feet over an eight-mile stretch of 3,700 acres.[1] At its current rate, it could burn for over 250 more years.[2]

The blaze has resulted in most of the town being abandoned. The population dwindled from 2,761 in 1890 to only 7 in 2013, and most of the buildings have been leveled.

A small part of the Centralia mine fire after being exposed during excavation in 1969

Background[edit]

On May 7, 1962, the Centralia Council met to discuss the approaching Memorial Day and how the town would go about cleaning up the Centralia landfill, which was introduced earlier that year. The 300-foot wide, 75-foot long pit (91 m × 23 m) was made up of a 50-foot-deep strip mine (15 m) that had been cleared by Edward Whitney in 1935, and came very close to the northeast corner of Odd Fellows Cemetery. There were eight illegal dumps spread about Centralia, and the council's intention in creating the landfill was to stop the illegal dumping, as new state regulations had forced the town to close an earlier dump west of St. Ignatius Cemetery. Trustees at the cemetery were opposed to the landfill's proximity to the cemetery, but recognized the illegal dumping elsewhere as a serious issue and envisioned that the new pit would resolve it.[3]

Pennsylvania had passed a precautionary law in 1956 to regulate landfill use in strip mines, as landfills were known to cause destructive mine fires. The law required a permit and regular inspection for a municipality to use such a pit. George Segaritus, a regional landfill inspector who worked for the Department of Mines and Mineral Industries (DMMI), became concerned about the pit when he noticed holes in the walls and floor, as such mines often cut through older mines underneath. Segaritus informed Joseph Tighe, a Centralia councilman, that the pit would require filling with an incombustible material.[3]

The fire[edit]

This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn's. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit [540 degrees Celsius]. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.

— David DeKok, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986)[4]

Plan and execution[edit]

The town council arranged for cleanup of the strip mine dump, but council minutes do not describe the proposed procedure. It is speculated[by whom?] that the process—setting it on fire—was not specified because state law prohibited dump fires.[citation needed] Nonetheless, the Centralia council set a date and hired five members of the volunteer firefighter company to clean up the landfill.

A fire was ignited to clean the dump on May 27, 1962, and water was used to douse the visible flames that night. However, flames were seen once more on May 29. Using hoses hooked up from Locust Avenue, another attempt was made to douse the fire that night. Another flare-up in the following week (June 4) caused the Centralia Fire Company to once again douse it with hoses. A bulldozer stirred up the garbage so that firemen could douse concealed layers of the burning waste. A few days later, a hole as wide as 15 feet (4.6 m) and several feet high was found in the base of the north wall of the pit. Garbage had concealed the hole and prevented it from being filled with incombustible material. It is possible that this hole led to the mine fire, as it provided a pathway to the labyrinth of old mines under the borough. Evidence indicates that, despite these efforts to douse the fire, the landfill continued to burn; on July 2, Monsignor William J. Burke complained about foul odors from the smoldering trash and coal reaching St. Ignatius Church. Even then, the Centralia council still allowed the dumping of garbage into the pit.[3]

A member of the council contacted Clarence "Mooch" Kashner, the president of the Independent Miners, Breakermen, and Truckers union, to inspect the situation in Centralia. Kashner evaluated the events and called Gordon Smith, an engineer of the DMMI office in Pottsville. Smith told the town that he could dig out the smoldering material using a steam shovel for $175. A call was placed to Art Joyce, a mine inspector from Mount Carmel, who brought gas detection equipment for use on the swirling wisps of smoke now emanating from fissures in the north wall of the landfill pit. Tests concluded that the gases seeping from the large hole in the pit wall and from cracks in the north wall contained carbon monoxide concentrations typical of coal-mine fires.[3]

Escalation[edit]

Immediately, a letter was sent[by whom?] to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company (LVCC) as formal notice of the fire. The town council decided that hiding the true origin of the fire would serve better than alerting the LVCC of the truth, which would most likely end in receiving no help from them.[3] In the letter, the borough described the starting of a fire "of unknown origin... during a period of unusually hot weather."[citation needed]

Preceding an August 6 meeting at the fire site which would include officials from the LVCC and the Susquehanna Coal Company, Deputy Secretary of Mines James Shober Sr. expected that the representatives would inform him they could not afford mounting a project that would stop the mine fire. Therefore, Shober announced that he expected the state to finance the cost of digging out the fire, which was at that time around $30,000. Another offer was made at the meeting, proposed by Centralia strip mine operator Alonzo Sanchez, who told members of council that he would dig out the mine fire free of charge as long as he could claim any coal he recovered without paying royalties to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company. Part of Sanchez's plan was to do exploratory drilling to estimate the scope of the mine fire, which was most likely why Sanchez's offer was rejected at the meeting. The drilling would have delayed the project, not to mention the legal issues with mining rights.[3]

At the time, state mine inspectors were in the Centralia-area mines almost daily to check for lethal levels of carbon monoxide. Lethal levels were found on August 9, and all Centralia-area mines were closed the next day.

Early remedial attempts[edit]

First excavation project[edit]

Pressed at an August 12 meeting of the United Mine Works of America in Centralia, Secretary of Mines Lewis Evans sent a letter to the group on August 15 that claimed he had authorized a project to deal with the mine fire, and that bids for the project would be opened on August 17. Two days later, the contract was awarded to Bridy, Inc., a company near Mount Carmel, for an estimated $20,000. Work on the project began August 22.[3]

The DMMI, who originally believed Bridy would need only to excavate 24,000 cubic yards (18,000 m3) of earth, informed him that he was forbidden to do any exploratory drilling in order to find the perimeter of the fire or how deep it was, and that he was to follow only plans drawn up by engineers who did not believe the fire was very big or active. It was instead guessed where the fire was located based upon how much steam was issuing from the landfill rock. Bridy began digging on the northern perimeter of the dump pit rim and excavated about 200 feet (61 m) outward to expand the perimeter. As soon as Bridy's equipment opened the mine chambers below, large amounts of air would rush in to fuel the fire. Steve Kisela, a bulldozer operator in Bridy's project, said that the project was ineffective because the fire had moved ahead of the excavation by the time a section was drilled and blasted. Bridy was also using a 2.5 cubic-yard shovel, which was considered small for the project. He was allowed by the state only to work a single shift of eight hours a day throughout weekdays. At one point, work was at a standstill for five days during the Labor Day weekend in early September. As the project continued, the fire was moving northward and thus deeper, greatly increasing the excavation cost.

Bridy had excavated 58,580 cubic yards (44,790 m3) of earth by the time the project ran out of money and ended on October 29.[3]

Second excavation project[edit]

On October 29, before Bridy's project had ceased, a new project was proposed that included flushing the mine fire. Crushed rock would be mixed with water, which would be pumped into Centralia's mines ahead of the expected fire expansion. The project was estimated to cost $40,000. Bids were opened on November 1, and the project was awarded to K&H Excavating with a low bid of $28,400.[3]

Drilling was conducted through holes spaced 20 feet (6.1 m) apart in the shape of a semicircle along the edge of the landfill. At the time, Centralia experienced an unusually heavy period of snowfall. Low winter temperatures froze the water lines used to supply water for the flushing material, and the machine used to grind the rock froze during a windy blizzard. The DMMI, worried that the 10,000 cubic yards (7,600 m3) of flushing material would not be enough to fill the mines, did not allow the boreholes to be filled completely with material, thus giving the choked mine fire a possible route of escape.[3]

Secretary Evans approved an additional $14,000 for the second project after there were concerns that money was running out quickly. Funding for the project ran out on March 15, 1963, with a total cost of $42,420.[citation needed]

On April 11, surface evidence was found in Centralia that the mine fire had spread eastward as far as 700 feet (210 m) from its original starting place, and steam began issuing from additional holes in the ground.[3]

Third project[edit]

A three-option proposal was drawn up soon after that, although the project would be delayed until after the new fiscal year beginning July 1, 1963. The first option, costing $277,490, consisted of entrenching the fire and back-filling the trench with incombustible material. The second, costing $151,714, offered a smaller trench in an incomplete circle, followed by the completion of the circle with a flush barrier. The third plan was a "total and concerted flushing project" larger than the second project's flushing and costing $82,300.

The state abandoned this project in 1963.[3]

Later remedial projects[edit]

David DeKok began reporting on the mine fire for The News-Item in Shamokin beginning in late 1976. Between 1976 and 1986, he wrote over 500 articles about the mine fire.

In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a then-mayor and gas station owner John Coddington inserted a dipstick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level and it came out hot. He lowered a thermometer on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F (77.8 °C).[citation needed]

Beginning in 1980, adverse health effects were reported by several people due to byproducts of the fire: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and low oxygen levels.[citation needed]

Statewide attention to the fire began to increase, culminating in 1981 when a 12-year-old[5] resident named Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole 4 feet (1.2 m) wide by 150 feet (46 m) deep that suddenly opened beneath his feet in a backyard. He clung to a tree root until his cousin, 14-year-old Eric Wolfgang, saved his life by pulling him out of the hole. The plume of hot steam billowing from the hole was measured as containing a lethal level of carbon monoxide.[2]

Possible origins[edit]

A number of competing hypotheses have arisen about the source of the Centralia mine fire. Some of them claim that the mine fire started before May 27, 1962.

The first hypothesis is that an unsealed opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. Joan Quigley argues in her 2007 book The Day the Earth Caved In that the fire had in fact started the previous day, when a trash hauler dumped hot ash or coal discarded from coal burners into the open trash pit. She noted that borough council minutes from June 4, 1962, referred to two fires at the dump, and that five firefighters had submitted bills for "fighting the fire at the landfill area". The borough, by law, was responsible for installing a fire-resistant clay barrier between each layer,[clarification needed] but fell behind schedule, leaving the barrier incomplete. This allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein of coal underneath the pit and light the subsequent subterranean fire. In addition to the council minutes, Quigley cites "interviews with volunteer firemen, the former fire chief, borough officials, and several eyewitnesses" as her sources.[6][7]

Another hypothesis is known as the Bast Theory. It states that the fire was burning long before the alleged trash dump fire. According to local legend, the Bast Colliery coal fire of 1932, set alight by an explosion, was never fully extinguished. In 1962, it reached the landfill area. Those who adhere to the Bast Theory believe that the dump fire is a separate fire unrelated to the Centralia mine fire. One man who disagrees is Frank Jurgill Sr., who claims he operated a bootleg mine with his brother in the vicinity of the landfill between 1960 and 1962. He says that if the Bast Colliery fire had never been put out, he and his brother would have been in it and killed by the gases.[3] Based on this and due to contrary evidence, few hold this position, and it is given little credibility.

Centralia councilman Joseph Tighe proposed a different hypothesis: that Centralia’s coal fire was actually started by an adjacent coal seam fire that had been burning west of Centralia’s. His belief is that the adjacent fire was at one time partially excavated, but it nonetheless set alight the landfill on May 27.[3]

Another hypothesis arose from a letter sent to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company in the days after the mine fire was noticed. The letter describes "a fire of unknown origin [starting] on or about June 25, 1962, during a period of unusually hot weather". This may make a reference to the hypothesis of spontaneous combustion being the reason for the start of the landfill fire, a hypothesis accepted for many years by state and federal officials.[3]

Aftermath[edit]

The location at which the former roadbed of Pennsylvania Route 61 terminates due to the mine fire.
As the joining row homes were demolished, the buttresses were constructed to support the walls of the remaining homes.[8]

In 1984, Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers and moved to the nearby communities of Mount Carmel and Ashland. A few families opted to stay despite urgings from Pennsylvania officials.[citation needed]

In 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain on all properties in the borough, condemning all the buildings within. A subsequent legal effort by residents to have the decision reversed failed. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked Centralia's ZIP code, 17927.[1][9] In 2009, Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of Centralia residents. In July 2012, the last handful of residents in Centralia lost their appeal of a court decision upholding eminent domain proceedings, and were ordered again to leave.[10] State and local officials reached an agreement with the seven remaining residents on October 29, 2013, allowing them to live out their lives there, after which the rights of their properties will be taken through eminent domain.[11]

The Centralia mine fire also extended beneath the town of Byrnesville, a few miles to the south. The town had to be abandoned and leveled.[12]

The Centralia area has now grown to be a tourist attraction.[13] Visitors come to see the smoke on Centralia's empty streets and the abandoned portion of PA Route 61, popularly referred to as the Graffiti Highway.[14]

The fire and its effects were featured in 2013 on America Declassified on the Travel Channel.[15]

Gallery[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Krajick, Kevin (May 2005), "Fire in the hole", Smithsonian Magazine, retrieved 2009-07-27 
  2. ^ a b O'Carroll, Eoin (February 5, 2010). "Centralia, Pa.: How an underground coal fire erased a town". Bright Green blog. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2013-08-05. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o DeKok, David (2010). Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire. Globe Pequot Press. ISBN 978-0-7627-5427-4. 
  4. ^ DeKok, David (1986), Unseen Danger; A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 17, ISBN 978-0-595-09270-3 
  5. ^ Associated Press (February 14, 1981), In this Feb. 14, 1981, file photo, Todd Domboski, 12, of Centralia, Pa., looks over a barricade at the hole he fell through just hours before this photo was taken in Centralia, Pa., Evansville Courier & Press, archived from the original on 2013-09-21, retrieved 2013-09-19 
  6. ^ Quigley, Joan (2007), The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy, New York: Random House, ISBN 978-1-4000-6180-8 
  7. ^ Quigley, Joan (2007). "Chapter Notes to The Day the Earth Caved In" (DOC). p. 8. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  8. ^ "A modern day Ghost Town, Centralia Pennsylvania". Sliprock Media LLC. Retrieved 15 August 2014. 
  9. ^ Currie, Tyler (April 2, 2003), "Zip Code 00000", Washington Post, retrieved 2009-12-19 
  10. ^ Rubinkam, Michael (February 5, 2010), Few Remain as 1962 Pa. Coal Town Fire Still Burns, ABC News (Australia), retrieved February 6, 2010 
  11. ^ Agreement Reached With Remaing(sic) Centralia Residents
  12. ^ Holmes, Kristin E. (October 21, 2008). "Minding a legacy of faith: In an empty town, a shrine still shines". Philly.com. 
  13. ^ "Visiting Centralia PA - Frequently Asked Questions about visiting Centralia". Offroaders.com. Retrieved 2017-03-24. 
  14. ^ "Graffiti Highway, Centralia Pennsylvania". Centraliapa.org. 2014-09-05. Retrieved 2017-03-24. 
  15. ^ ""America Declassified" Hiding in Plain Sight/City on Fire/Rock Star (2013)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 2017-03-24.