Centralia Coal Fire, PA

By Sarah Byer, Colgate University, 2014

Once a small, friendly community, Centralia, PA disappeared due to an uncontrolled coal mine fire burning beneath the town[1]The people of Centralia dealt with internal community conflict, fear mongering, political distrust, and a fire burning beneath their homes[2].

These before after photos present the same main avenue of Centralia, been reduced to only a handful of homes, a cemetery, cracked roads and a few plumes of steam billowing out of the ground. (Perkel)
These before after photos present the same main avenue of Centralia. The town has been reduced to only a handful of homes, a cemetery, cracked roads and a few plumes of steam billowing out of the ground. (Centralia Photo Archive 2012; Perkel 2007)

The collaboration of these factors ultimately led to the social and physical self-destruction of Centralia. Poor community and government decision-making and uneven distributions of power and knowledge in Centralia marginalized those who experienced harm from the fire and didn’t have the resources to properly address their vulnerabilities. Environmental injustice presents itself in Centralia through community cohort marginalization and ineffective environmental disaster response.

Site Description:

Attracted to the region’s supply of anthracite coal, coal mining industries quickly established the town of Centralia in the mid-1800’s[3]. The stock market crash forced thousands of miners to participate in “pillar robbing”, removing coal-laden buttresses from the mines to sell to support their families[4]. Unstable coal strip mines meandered beneath Centralia at a time when demand for anthracite coal was declining in favor of other sources of energy (figure below)[5]. Despite their relatively low economic power and lack of primary industry, Centralians slowly recovered from a century of coal extraction and founded an intimate community[6].

Figure 1. Trends of U.S. energy consumption show the decreasing use of coal in the 1900's compared to other sources such as petroleum and natural gas.
Trends in U.S. energy consumption show the decreasing use of coal in the 1900s compared to other sources such as petroleum and natural gas (U.S. EIA 2011).

The fire began in the village landfill in an abandoned mine pit in 1962[7]. Steep underground inclines, elusive oxygen sources, and recurring subsidences of Centralia’s landscape made the coal fire difficult to extinguish[8]. Failing to extinguish the fire, Centralia turned to the Pennsylvania Department of Mines and Mineral Industries and the U.S. Bureau of Mines[9]. Bureau and DMMI officials had little understanding of the severity of Centralia’s fire[10] and “disliked involving local officials in the decision-making process about mine fire work”[11]. Unfortunately the “federal and state agencies failed to develop an effective and coherent plan to deal with the Centralia fire” that would also satisfy the needs of the Centralians[12]. Centralia’s local government officials lacked the necessary experience required to manage the agencies attempting to solve their environmental disaster[13]. Mutual disorganization and conflicting policies prevented government agencies from creating and enacting an effective solution[14]. Ignorance of volunteered local knowledge and the absence of a government response fostered feelings of powerlessness and mistrust directed at the government and within the community[15].

CentraliaMap

These before and after maps of Centralia show where the fire spread and its ultimate impact on the community.
These before and after maps of Centralia show where the fire spread and its ultimate impact on the community (Meshko 2008).
A smoke hole belches steam that has built up in the underground mines. Heat from the underground steam could be felt in the basements of homes at dangerously high temperatures (Perkel).

Additionally, citizens had had anxieties about unsafe levels of carbon monoxide, temperatures, and subsidences for years but received little attention[16]. Many Centralians’ risk perceptions were far greater than the actions being taken by government agencies to address those risks[17]. Feeling powerless and fearful, Centralia produced multiple response organizations. The categorization of citizens and varied levels of risk perception contributed to community marginalization. Eventually a spatial division developed within the town; Centralians labeled one another “hot-sider” and “cold-sider” depending on their proximity to the fire[18].

Congress eventually authorized $42 million for the relocation of Centralia families in 1984[19]. The town voted in favor of this referendum, finalizing the government buyout of the entire village[20]. Centralians had been experiencing an internal conflict of interests to stay or relocate; the critical divergence of these interests dissolved the community.

 

Larger Context:

Comparing Centralia to other energy sites, we notice it is not like other coal “boomtowns”[21]. Centralia did not dissolve once coal mining ceased; the citizens sustained a thriving community built on trust[22]. Delayed and unsatisfactory responses shattered Centralia’s sense of community for many citizens[23]. Centralia’s deposits of coal are lost to the energy sector and will continue to emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases for many years[24].

Centralia lacked an appropriately responsive government and a deeper consideration of local knowledge in decision-making[25]. Many Centralians became victims of environmental injustice because policies failed to address the varied levels of threat perception and perceived loss of control and power by many Centralians[26].

John Coddington (above) had to be revived via oxygen after he collapsed from exposure to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in his own home (Kroll-Smith 55). Anxiety over the inaction of responsible agencies led some Centralians to believe that “Someone’s gonna’ have to die before anything gets done” (“Dying Embers”).

Analysis:

Centralians were inaccurately represented and had unequal participation in governmental decision-making processes[27]. Thus not every citizen had an equal voice; only outspoken individuals in grassroots organizations and those who could prove the fire impacted their health were given attention[28]. Government agencies and the energy industry contributed to a sense of division and exclusion within Centralia[29].

Many Centralians felt endangered by extremely high temperatures, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide gases within their homes, and subsidences occurring throughout the landscape.

Centralians also experienced an uneven distribution of environmental “bads” throughout the landscape[30]. The spatial nature of this environmental disaster contributed to variation in risk perception. The fire disproportionately subjected some people to more health risks than others[31]. The “hot-side”/”cold-side” dichotomy emerged from these differences in which those farther from the fire were systematically favored and those closer were marginalized[32].

Perhaps the most compelling argument for Centralia as an environmental injustice case lies in a comparative study with Laurel Run, a neighboring community[33]. Similar in geologic character to Centralia, the Laurel Run underground mine fire also proved difficult to extinguish[34]. But a “difference in levels of experience in dealing with the government and access to political power” enabled Laurel Run to stop the fire[35]. Sociopolitical exploitation could explain the disparities of vulnerability between Laurel Run and Centralia; industries may take advantage of communities with little capacity for retaliation, choosing the “path of least resistance”[36].  

Had Centralia (left) been given the proper attention and informed of important political powers like Laurel Run, now the township of Wilkes-Barre (right), the situation may have ended differently.
Had Centralia (left) been given the proper attention and informed of important political powers like Laurel Run, now the township of Wilkes-Barre (right), the situation may have ended differently (Centralia Photo Archive 2012).

Neglect, indecision, and exclusion made reviving the town nearly impossible as people became frustrated towards one another[37]. Organized groups with polarizing beliefs emerged, replaced communal bonds, and competed for “control of the crisis”[38]. Groups and individuals saw few results in spite of their letter, protests, and numerous community meetings[39]. By the time the government offered a coherent relocation plan, the one aspect keeping Centralia together, its sense of community, was long-demolished by accumulating internal strife[40].

Conclusion:

Centralia’s self-destruction can be considered an extreme response to passive political neglect and the active forces of community marginalization and endangerment. Centralia’s demise emphasizes the importance of social, political, and economic understandings of communities existing in energy landscapes. Listening to lived experiences fosters effective policies for future cases of communities threatened by environmental disasters. Practicing methods of inclusion may prevent the loss of human and physical capital once found in Centralia.

 


REFERENCES

[1] Tobin-Janzen, T. et al. “Nitrogen Changes and Domain Bacteria Ribotype Diversity in Soils Overlying the Centralia, Pennsylvania Underground Coal Mine Fire.” Soil Science 170.3 (2005): 191-201. Print.

[2] Couch, Stephen R., PhD, and Charlton J. Coles PhD. “Community Stress, Psychosocial Hazards, and EPA Decision-Making in Communities Impacted by Chronic Technological Disasters.” American Journal of Public Health 101.S1 (2011): S140-8. Print.

[3] DeKok, David. “Centralia Mine Fire.” Encyclopedia of American Environmental History. Ed. Kathleen A. Brosnan. 1 Vol. New York: Facts on File, 2011. 252-253. Print.

[4] DeKok (2011).

[5] DeKok (2011).

[6] Marsh, Ben. “Continuity and Decline in the Anthracite Towns of Pennsylvania.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77.3 (1987): 337-52. Print.

[7] DeKok (2011).

[8] Nolter, M., D. Vice, and H. Aurand. “Comparison of Pennsylvania Anthracite Mine Fires: Centralia and Laruel Run.” Geology of Coal Fires: Case Studies from Around the World. Ed. G. Stracher. 18 Vol. Boulder, CO: The Geological Society of America, 2007. 261-270. Print.

[9] DeKok (2011).

[10] McCurdy, K. “Congressional Response to Coal Fires: Illustrating Transitions in the Policy Process.” Geology of Coal Fires: Case Studies from Around the World. Ed. G. Stracher. 18 Vol. Boulder, CO: The Geological Society of America, 2007. 271-278. Print.

[11] DeKok (2011).

[12] Nolter et al. (2007).

[13] Nolter et al. (2007).

[14] Kroll-Smith, J. Stephen and Couch, Stephen Robert The real disaster is above ground : a mine fire & social conflict. University Press of Kentucky, [Lexington, Ky.], 1990.

[15] Marsh (1987).

[16] DeKok (2011); Logue, James N., Robert M. Stroman, and Kandiah Sivarajah. “The Centralia Mine Fire: An Overview of Community Health Surveillance Efforts.” Journal of environmental health 54.1 (1991): 21. Print.

[17] Marsh (1987).

[18] Kroll-Smith (1990).

[19] DeKok (2011).

[20] Abumrad, J. and Krulwich, R. (narr.). 2010. “Dying Embers.” Radiolab. NPR. Natl. Public Radio. Web. 8 October 2010.

[21] Perkel, C. and Roland, G. (directors). 2007. The Town that Was. Prod. Dog Player Films. Cinevolve Studios. Documentary.

[22] Marsh (1987).

[23] Couch et al. (2011).

[24] Abumrad and Krulwich (2010); Tobin-Janzen et al. (2005); Vallero, Daniel A., and T. M. Letcher. Unraveling Environmental Disasters. Boston: Elsevier, 2013. Print.

[25] DeKok (2011); McCurdy (2007).

[26] Kroll-Smith et al. (1990).

[27] DeKok (2011); Nolter et al. (2007).

[28] DeKok (2011).

[29] Marsh (1987).

[30] Mohai, P., D. Pellow, and J. T. Roberts. “Environmental Justice.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34 (2009): 405-30. Print.

[31] Logue, James N., Robert M. Stroman, and Kandiah Sivarajah. “The Centralia Mine Fire: An Overview of Community Health Surveillance Efforts.” Journal of environmental health 54.1 (1991): 21. Print.

[32] Kroll-Smith et al. (1990).

[33] Nolter et al. (2007).

[34] Mohai et al. (2009).

[35] McCurdy (2007); Nolter et al. (2007).

[36] Mohai et al. (2009).

[37] Couch et al. (2011).

[38] Kroll-Smith et al. (1990).

[39] DeKok (2011).

[40] Marsh (1987).

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