Centralia, Pa.: How an underground coal fire erased a town

The Centralia, Pa., coal fire is expected to drive out the town's few remaining residents.

In this Feb. 14, 1981, photo, Todd Domboski of Centralia, Pa., looks over a barricade at the hole he fell through just hours before this photo was taken in Centralia, Pa. The hole was caused by a mine fire that had been burning beneath the town since 1962, and it still burns today.

If officials in Pennsylvania's capital, Harrisburg, have their way, the borough of Centralia, Pa., will soon cease to exist.

There's not much left of the northeastern Pennsylvania coal town these days. Even in the early 1980s, some two decades after the underground fires began, more than a thousand people called Centralia home. But as the poisonous gases continued to seep from fissures in the ground, and as the sudden sinkholes threatened to cast people into the smoldering depths, the town emptied out.

Today, fewer than a dozen people remain.

Now the state wants those last holdouts gone. As the Associated Press's Michael Rubinkam reports, state officials have ordered Centralia's remaining residents to leave so that their homes can be demolished.

Nobody really knows exactly what started the fire, which began at a town dump in 1962. The burning trash ignited an exposed coal seam, and the fires seeped into the labyrinth of tunnels and shafts below. Over the next two decades, firefighters tried eight times to douse the subterranean blaze, but the fire always seemed to be several steps ahead of them. Eventually, they gave up. Extinguishing the fire would be too expensive, and anyway it didn't seem to pose too much danger.

In the early years of the fire, Centralians enjoyed not having to shovel their sidewalks and being able to harvest tomatoes from the warm ground in midwinter, Smithsonian magazine notes. But then, as the ground below turned to ash, the pavement started to buckle. The trees started dying. People started passing out in their homes from the toxic fumes.

Centralia's moment of clarity came in 1981, when the ground beneath 12-year-old Todd Domboski opened up. Todd, who had been cutting through a resident's yard, saved himself from plunging into the toxic inferno below by clinging to a tree root until a cousin rescued him.

Two years later, Congress appropriated $42 million to buy and demolish every home in the town. By 1990, only 63 people remained. In 2002, the US Postal Service eliminated Centralia's ZIP Code.

Still, a few diehards remained, squatting in houses they no longer own after the government seized them through eminent domain in the early 1990s. Some claim that the whole thing is a plot to seize mineral rights.

As the Monitor's Carmen Sisson noted in 2006, Centralia's mammoth deposits of anthracite, which once promised limitless prosperity, are now expected to burn for another 250 years.

Today, the town is not so much of a ghost town as it is a big open space with a grid of empty streets. The homes have been demolished, the rubble cleared, and the driveways now lead to nowhere.

As the AP's Michael Rubinkam notes, it didn't have to be this way. Had town officials taken swift action back when they first became aware of it, Centralia could still exist.

Half-measures. Complacence. Conspiracy theories. Denial. These themes are familiar to anyone who follows environmental topics. As Centralia is deleted from Pennsylvania's official registers, we can only hope that the name will remain in our minds as a lesson about how creeping, incremental threats can, if ignored, destroy the very ground ground beneath our feet.

Follow Eoin on Twitter.

Editor's Note: The Monitor's Environment section has a new URL. And there's also a new URL for our Bright Green blog. We hope you'll bookmark these and visit often.

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