A tiny town's dilemma: stay together, or flee nation's worst underground fire?

The early arrivals are milling around outside Borough Hall in the twilight, talking among themselves in low tones. They've come for a special meeting of the Borough Council called for 7 o'clock to hear what the commonwealth of Pennsylvania will do to help them out of their terrible dilemma. But they aren't allowed in yet, and the mountain air is chilly and damp.

Inside, a Girl Scout party is in progress, and the Scouts claim to have the hall reserved until 7:30. Indeed, it will be nearly that hour before the meeting finally starts.

Party or not, few people in Centralia are in a festive mood these days. Under their little town burns a coal-mine fire that has gone unchecked for 21 years. It is the nation's worst underground fire - and Pennsylvania's worst environmental problem.

All over one end of town evidence of the fire is obvious. Smoke and fumes belch continuously from openings in the ground and from metal chimneys embedded in it. In what once was a woods, dried-out trees lie tangled like cooked spaghetti, felled by the burning coal under them. Metal-capped boreholes with temperature gauges suspended inside them run in continuous rows down streets near the fire zone. Large signs driven into the ground read: ''Posted. Keep Out. Danger.''

Many houses here are directly threatened. At least one Centralian claims his life has been threatened, too, but not by the fire.

But that's getting ahead of the story. First, a fast bit of history:

The fire was discovered deep in abandoned anthracite mine tunnels in 1962. Since then, local, state, and federal agencies have spent approximately $5 million in attempts to extinguish, contain, and finally just determine the fire's boundaries. But always the money ran out just when the efforts seemed on the verge of success.

Some residents have already sold their houses to the United States government (which then tore them down) and moved to safety in nearby towns. Others live with gas monitors in their basements, never knowing whether or when excessive buildups of lethal carbon monoxide from the smoking coal might set them off.

Last spring the state spent $250,000 to shore up the main highway into Centralia because it was cracking from the heat of the fire. In August, property owners made national headlines when they voted 345 to 200 to sell out at fair market value to a designated governmental agency and relocate. On Oct. 27 the US Senate approved a supplemental spending bill - already passed by the House of Representatives - that included $42 million for the buy-out and relocation of Centralians who wanted to leave.

It doesn't take long to understand the way things are around here. Carpeted with golden foliage, the slopes in this part of Pennsylvania are glorious in the autumn sun. But you can't be sure until you come close whether they're really mountains or just enormous mounds of coal waste. And there is a modest sameness to the towns here - many of their names reflecting the industry that once supported them: Minersville, Ashland, Port Carbon.

Centralia is such a town. But besides the fire it has something else most others don't: It owns the mineral rights to the remaining coal under it. By some estimates there are as many as 84 million tons of top-grade anthracite under Centralia and still untouched by the fire. If there is to be another coal boom in the US, that anthracite could be worth billions of dollars on the retail market.

But if Centralia should cease to exist as an incorporated place because most, if not all, of the people here have fled the mine fire, residents fear that the rights to the remaining coal will revert to the state. They're also angry that bureaucrats appear to have ignored the suggestions of men with long experience in the mines here for putting the fire out.

Thus, some residents say they believe there's a conspiracy on the part of government to keep the fire burning so the rights to that coal can be had. Accordingly, some who say they will probably leave think those who are determined to stay ''don't want anybody to go.''

''I would say that's a false statement,'' says Mayor John Wondoloski, however.

The mayor, who also operates a dragline in a nearby strip mine, says: ''The government always says it's not in the coal mining business. But if, five, six years from now . . . the state turns (the land) over to anyone on a royalty basis, well. . . .'' He leaves the sentence unfinished but shakes his head sadly.

There are several methods of putting out mine fires, but the one widely considered to be most viable here would mean digging away all the overburden. Estimated cost: more than $660 million. That would have many unwelcome consequences, however, including years of noise, dust, and the taking of houses in the fire's path. Even after it was certain that the fire had been quenched and the land backfilled, it would be as many as 10 years before anyone could build there safely again.

Anywhere else, the choice confronting these people might be easy despite the potential windfall from a coal boom: leave.

But there's one other catch. The sense of community spirit here is especially strong. There is a great love of the land. Many families are related to each other and share the same deep religious ties. Residents take pride in having refurbished their homes with the best materials but still say they often don't feel the need to lock their doors when they go out. Bake sales have been held to raise money for people confronted by sudden major medical problems.

''I would like to see the whole community be rebuilt in another area,'' says Bob Lazarski, who has lived here for 23 years and is a manager for a plastics company.

Vacant land has, in fact, been offered three miles away in Mt. Carmel Township that would be adequate for many new houses, although probably not enough to accommodate all 371 Centralia households. But that land, too, was once the scene of a mine fire and would have to be backfilled and allowed to settle before people could build on it safely.

Otherwise, the state has surveyed the available housing within a 20-mile radius of Centralia and found an estimated 820 units, although its report issued last month concedes ''there is a question as to whether sufficient housing will be available to meet every requirement. . . .''

''I would love to see things stay exactly as they are,'' says Tom Larkin, a fifth-generation Centralian who works as a cook at a restaurant in nearby Ashland. ''But I don't think that's possible anymore. Whether people realize it or not, the fire must be stopped.''

Mr. Larkin is known as a community activist because he helped organize the Concerned Citizens Action Group Against the Centralia Mine Fire to inform residents of their rights and options. His group sought and won a grant from the Roman Catholic Campaign for Human Development. The money ($30,000) was used to open an office in Centralia and bring someone with experience in community crisis work here as a coordinator during the ordeal. She is a Catholic nun, Sister Honor Murphy.

But Larkin says he found to his surprise that not everyone in town welcomed his efforts. The purpose was misunderstood, and both he and Sister Honor have been greeted with suspicion. Larkin claims there have been threats against his life and he has quit the group. Still, some people in town won't speak to him. His rented house is not endangered by the fire, but he expects to leave anyway.

Molly Darrah, who lives directly across the street from Tom Larkin, is staying, however. She is a member of Borough Council and the retired postmistress in Centralia.

''I chose to (stay) because I don't think the fire is as bad as they've made it out be,'' she says. ''But we respect the people who want to get out - the people who've had gas.''

Like others in town, Molly is dubious of the Larkin-Murphy group. Some of the grant money was spent to sponsor a personal appearance by another community activist, Lois Gibbs of Love Canal fame, and Molly says Ms. Gibbs spent her time here ''teaching people how to cheat the government.''

''Even the little kids were listening to this,'' Molly says.

Sister Honor admits that Ms. Gibbs - in a public meeting - did mention cheating the government, but in obvious jest.

''What we're actually about is to help people search out all the options and see which ones they want to pursue,'' she says. Concerned Citizens, she adds, is also working to ensure that whatever is left of Centralia when the ordeal is over will have such amenities as street lighting, sewers, police protection, and access to highways leading to the outside world.

''The Centralia people caught my compassion, not my pity,'' she says. ''I like the people very, very much - even those who don't like me.''

The Rev. Anthony McGinley, who grew up here and is a retired college professor, heads another and is a retired college professor, heads another group - the Residents to Save the Borough of Centralia. They are, in a word, the stayers.

''All we want is not to be harassed,'' he says. ''Those who want to leave, we want them to get their money and we wish them well.'' As for those who intend to stay, Father McGinley says: ''We're building community. If I call a meeting for 7:30, they're still there at 10 o'clock. (But) they tell me, 'If you say one word about leaving, we'll walk out.' ''

Speaking of meetings, John G. Carling, chief of the disaster programs division of the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs, presided at the one in Borough Hall. It is his agency that will coordinate the distribution of the $42 million in federal funds to buy out and relocate those who decide to leave.

Drawing on his lengthy experience with the townspeople here, he told those attending:

''All you folks want is to live a life of your own in a house of your choosing. All of you are strong, for it takes a strong person to make the kind of decision you have to make.''

As far as the state is concerned, he added, ''It's time to bury the hatchet.''

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