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You Can’t Stop the Heat

by Sarah Blackwell on March 28, 2014

The fire burning underneath has caused the ground to shift and buckle, damaging roadways.

The fire burning underneath has caused the ground to shift and buckle, damaging roadways.

In 1962 the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania was a vibrant, blue-collar community home to about 1,500 residents with five hotels, seven churches, four movie theatres, two jewelry stores, and over twenty bars. Today, Centralia is a modern ghost town that only ten people call home. What caused such a change in a once bustling community? An underground fire that has burned for the last 50 years and shows no signs of stopping.

On May 27 of 1962, town officials lit a fire to eradicate the town dump of trash before Memorial Day as it was close in proximity to the town cemetery. Unbeknownst to them, the fire ignited an exposed anthracite coal vein and found its way into the endless maze of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. Town firefighter’s initial attempt to douse the fire seemed successful as the flames on the earth’s surface were extinguished, but the fire’s resurgence above ground over the subsequent weeks indicated to town officials that there may be more going on than meets the eye. The town notified the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, who began monitoring the fire by drilling holes into the ground to determine the temperature and extent of the fire. The scope of the fire was larger than they anticipated and continued to spread; in retrospect, drilling holes in the earth may have further fueled the combustion.

Multiple attempts to contain the blaze over the next two decades proved fruitless. Mines were flushed with water, burning coal was excavated, and barriers were erected – all to no avail. Gradually, town residents became aware of the severity of the mine fire raging beneath their homes. A gas station owner recorded the temperature of his underground fuel tank as 180°F and residents complained of symptoms related to carbon monoxide poisoning. The situation finally garnered national attention in 1981 when a 12-year-old boy fell into a sink hole in his backyard as the ground crumbled beneath him. With the cost of excavating the entire 8-mile mine amounting to a staggering $660 million, the state of Pennsylvania condemned the town of Centralia, leveling buildings and relocating residents. Some holdouts remain, however, bringing the total population today to 10 residents.

The scene of overgrown streets, toxically steaming ground, and abundant warning signs is not unique to Centralia; while it is the location of the largest coal fire in the United States, it is not the only one. There are about 200 similar situations in mines throughout the US, and even more abroad. As the need for coal is ever increasing, particularly in newly industrialized countries like China and India, the incidence of mine fires is quickly becoming a global environmental and public health threat. People living near coal fires are exposed to dangerously high levels of toxic fumes. Coal ash typically contains arsenic, lead, mercury and several other heavy metals that can potentially cause cancer and neurological deficits. Nervous system impacts include cognitive defects, developmental delays and behavioral problems. There is also the possibility of heart and lung diseases, respiratory distress, kidney damage, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illnesses, and birth defects. Heat and noxious gases kill plant life; the ground becomes cracked or caves in, ruining infrastructure and collapsing buildings. The burning of coal is a major contributor to the increase of carbon dioxide in the environment, where the effects on climate change are well-documented. Coal fires are a serious hazard, having the potential to completely alter the future health and livelihood of communities.

Beneath Centralia, PA scientists estimate that there is still enough coal to feed the fire for two hundred more years. What was once a vibrant community has been transformed into a desolate ghost town due to the devastating effects of a fire that continues to burn.




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