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Roger Weller, geology instructor

wellerr@cochise.edu

Centralia, Pennsylvania
by Dustin Bucherer
Physical Geology
Spring 2016
  
 
 

“Fire Below”

Centralia, Pennsylvania Mine Fire

 

 

     When and Where: Before anything is mentioned of the Centralia, Pennsylvania mine fire, it is important to understand the geology of the eastern region of Pennsylvania where Centralia is located and what exactly coal is and how it forms.  Coal is a rock that is formed from ancient forests and high vegetation areas that were flooded and a heavy amount sediment was deposited, leaving the forests buried. known as peat, the ancient vegetation mater began to decay but not fully and thus the carbon energy stored in the plants through photosynthesis is preserved by the overlying layers of sediment.  As the peat goes deeper it is exposed to a tremendous amount of heat and pressure and begins to change into coal, this process is called carbonation.  Coal comes in 3 forms of varying carbon content, color, luster and hardness.  From softest to hardest the four types are: Lignite, Subbituminous, Bituminous, and Anthracite. These deposits are often referred to as coal veins or seams.


  


 

     A large portion of what is now Pennsylvania was an ancient forest that buried and deposited one of the largest coal bearing regions in the world.  According to the documentary: A Town That Was,  “96% of the united states and ¾ of the world's anthracite coal resides in the small section of Ppennsylvania”.  (Catatonicanimal) This map shows the coal deposits are located in the state and where Centralia is located (represented by a blue dot)
 

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     Centralia. P pennsylvania is like many other Pennsylvania towns made its way onto the map by the people who migrated in 1856  to work in the Locust Ridge Mine and The Coal Ridge Mine on one of the state's largest  Anthracite coal seams. By the year 1890 the Centralia area had several mines in operation and reached its maximum reported population of 2,761.  Many of the mines continued to operate into the 1960s.(map)

 

     Coal is naturally flammable and is burned in its various forms for a wide variety of different purposes. Of those variations, anthracite being the closest to pure, sitting at anywhere from 92-98% carbon, burns and releases energy at a very intense and hot efficiency.  The town of Centralia was soon to have a first hand account of just how bad a an unintentional coal fire can be, especially underground. (Catatonicanimal)

 

     On may 27th 1962 the course of history of the town would slowly start to change.  With a fast approaching Memorial day celebration to take place in Old Fellows cemetery, the problem city planners were facing was that the landfill that came very close to the back corner of the cemetery and it needed to be cleaned up.  The solution was that a group of volunteer firefighters would set a trash fire and burn away the trash eliminating the problem.  Though the burning of landfills was deemed illegal by the state of Ppennsylvania a few years earlier they planned to carry out the “controlled burn” anyway.
 

     The land fill its self was just an abandoned strip-mine repurposed as a land fill.  On may the 27th they lit the fire and extinguished it in the evening, or at least they thought they did. Three days later the firefighters had to come back turning and extinguishing the smoldering trash with water where they had found it had gone deeper into the pile than expected.  They would have to come back at least three time before and just about a week after the fire was lit they determined by the steam rising and carbon monoxide gas levels consistent with coal fire coming from the pile, that the fire had made it down into the vast labyrinth of abandoned coal mines below the landfill.

 

 

    Town leaders informed the local coal companies in the area of the fire but failed to mention its origin for fear of them not wanting to cooperate in the effort of extinguishing it had they know the truth.  Several attempts to dig up and douse the fire were made in the following weeks and even years but many were met with failure not because of its difficulty to extinguish but because of lack of funding.  While the fire was burning and they were aware of that, the state government were unwilling to fund the extinguishing.  The fire would continue to rage on underneath the surface for years and the town went about their business.  It wasn't until the late 70s early 80s that the concern for the growing fire became more imminent.  By this time the fire had been burning for 20 years and made its way from the landfill area on the outskirts to right underneath the town. The safety of residents became evident when a local service station reported that the ground in and around his service station was warm to the touch and the field adjacent to the station was emitting steam from the surface.  Various unverified accounts state that the gas inside the underground tanks of the service station reached temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Around the same time the imminent danger of the ground weakening from the fire beneath their feet became very real for the people of Centralia when a 12 year old boy named Todd Domboski was playing in his grandmother's front yard when the ground beneath him gave way and he fell into a sinkhole measuring 4 feet wide and over 150 feet deep.  Lucky he was able to grab hold of some exposed tree roots and was rescued before falling into the depths of the mines.  This event alone attracted a lot of statewide and national news and sate and federal agencies were sent to Centralia to conduct a survey on the hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide gas levels being emitted from the fire.  Places like the sink hole that Todd fell into and even some of the buildings around town where found to have unsafe to even lethal levels of these poisonous gases. The federal government assessed the situation and what the cost to put out the fire. They determined that it would cost more to put out the fire 600+ million and only 42 million to relocate the residents. The government declared eminent domain and while not mandatory in its early stages began to offer money for the residents homes and property. While many left voluntarily there were those whose families had called Centralia home for generations and were reluctant to leave.  In 1992 the movement became mandatory and by the year 2010 the population went from 64 to 10.

Before and After Centralia, PA.
 

A school teacher named Deanna M. Helm was visiting the town in the early 2000’s and wrote this poem that truly captures the feel of what centralia is like since its residents left:

As a summer sun beats down

The ghastly heat rises up

From the charred remains

Of a town that was

And a people who were

 

Gone is the vibrant community

The beautiful neighborhood

Scattered bricks, crumpled roads

Bent pipes releasing toxic gases

Are left to inhabit this land today

 

Smoke pockets curl up to greet you

And the Earth is hot to the touch

For the fire continues to rage

In a coal vein out of control

Beneath the town that was

 

One wonders how it all began

When and how it will all end

And what became of the people

Who lived in the town that wa

(The Town..)

 

     Many of the resident still reluctant to leave including a former Centralia mayor fought the government for their right to live in their houses and won the right to live the rest of their natural life in their houses but upon their passing the government through eminent domain would sell their house a demolish it. The way of life that once filled the busy intersection of highway 61 and Locust Avenue is now nothing but empty lots and foundations. The section of Highway 61 had to be rerouted because of the damage from rising steam vents and sinkholes rendered the section of road unusable and a new route through near by Ashvale was made.The post office closed its zip code in 2003 and centralia was taken off the map. What is left of the town leaves almost an spooky feeling to those who visit its desolate streets, but for those handful of people who still live there it's home, it’s still the town they grew up in with or without the steam from the fire below.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited
 

 Emissions from Coal Fires and Their Impact on the Environment (n.d.): n. pag. Emissions from Coal Fires and Their Impact on the Environment. US Department of Interior, 2009. Web. May 2016.

"Map Distribution." SpringerReference (n.d.): n. pag. Geological Map. COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION AND NATURAL RESOURCES BUREAU OF TOPOGRAPHIC AND GEOLOGIC SURVEY. Web. May 2016.

 

Centralia Mine Fire, Centralia, Pennsylvania." RoadsideAmerica.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2016.

 

"Scale+of+coal - Google Search." Coal Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2016.

 

"Centralia Mine Fire." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 04 May 2016.

 

"The History of Centralia Pennsylvania and the Coal Mine Fire." The History of Centralia Pennsylvania and the Coal Mine Fire. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.

"The Town That Was." CentraliAlmanac RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.

 

Catatonicanimal. "THE TOWN THAT WAS." YouTube. YouTube, 17 June 2014. Web. 07 May 2016.