Hell in Earth

It all started in May 1962. The Centralia [Pennsylvania] Borough Council wanted to take advantage of an abandoned coal "stripping pit" near the town, one that was already being used as an unregulated dump, and turn it into a landfill. The borough set fire to the trash that had collected in the pit, and no one knew what was happening when the flames licked down into a hidden hole and ignited an anthracite coal seam.

When it became obvious that a small underground fire had started, a local mining engineer said that he would excavate it with a backhoe for $175. No one seemed to want to spend the money, since so little apparent damage was expected and there were no environmental regulations requiring any action.

In 1967, exploratory drilling showed that the fire had not burned itself out, and had indeed spread, coming closer to the center of town. In 1969, high levels of carbon monoxide drove three Centralia families from their homes, and by 1978 state and federal agencies had spent $3.3 million trying to contain the disaster. In 1982, exploratory holes revealed that temperatures below state Route 61, which ran through Centralia's southside, reached 455 degrees Celsius, and lethal doses of carbon monoxide were escaping from holes in the ground. The smell of sulfur was in the air, and the town was being ripped apart in many senses.

The community was pitted against itself as some wanted to relocate the town and some wanted to stay. Finally, between 1985 and 1991, over 1,000 residents were relocated at a cost of $40 million, and today only 40 people remain amid scorched trees and ground too hot to touch.

The impacts from environmental hazards such as the Centralia fire are hard for policy-makers to deal with. Such nonnatural disasters do not have an emergency management agency devoted to them, and no formal policies exist for responding to them (although relocation is used most frequently). Environmental regulations and procedures dealing with underground mine fires might seem to be a need in the aftermath of Centralia.

References

Kroll-Smith, J.S., and Stephen Couch. 1990. The Real Disaster is Above Ground: A Mine Fire and Social Conflict. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Memmi, John. 2000. "Cooking Centralia: A Recipe for Disaster," Geotimes, September, pp.26-27.