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Monday morning, the West Virginia Division of Forestry warned residents of the Mountain State that “Underground coal seams can catch fire and burn for years. Flames from these fires often make their way to the surface and start wildfires.”
If there is any doubt concerning the validity of the governmental agency’s warning, one simply needs to travel to the state’s northern neighbor, Pennsylvania, to see firsthand the havoc an underground coal fire can cause for those living topside.
On May 27, 1962, a fire was ignited that eventually reached an underground seam of coal in the central-Pennsylvania borough of Centralia.
It is believed that the fire was started deliberately under the direction of the local town council as part of a clean-up effort aimed at ridding the community of an illegal dumping site near the entrance of an abandoned strip mine. The fire unintentionally ignited a seam of coal, however, and an underground fire was started that continues to burn to this day – more than 53 years later.
Today, the conflagration (roughly one-hundred yards underneath the Keystone State’s topsoil) has expanded to include an eight-mile stretch of 3,700 acres of underground coal.
Perhaps even more shocking than the fact that a fire has been burning in Pennsylvania for over a half-century is the fact that scientists estimate that the underground blaze will continue to burn for another 250 years.
Sadly, the fire which was lit in order to make the community more attractive is responsible for turning the borough into a virtual ghost town.
In 1980, over 1,000 people lived in the village, today, only seven individuals remain, making the town Pennsylvania’s least populated borough and one of America’s least populated localities.
By the summer of 1962, townspeople began to complain about foul odors leaking from the mine site.
An investigation confirmed what everyone feared – there was indeed a smoldering and out of control fire underneath the ground.
From here, the narrative becomes muddy and somewhat controversial. It is alleged that the town council sent a letter to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company as formal notice of the fire. The council is reported to have decided to hide the true origin of the fire out of a fear that by admitting to having started the blaze, the community would most likely not receive any help from the company.
By August, state mine inspectors found that the underground fire had created lethal levels of carbon monoxide. The findings forced all mines in the mining town to close
In the weeks ahead, tens of thousands of cubic square yards of dirt were excavated in an effort to contain the blaze, sadly, all of the efforts proved to be in vain.
In 1963, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania dedicated over a half-million dollars toward containing the fire; however, the state abandoned its bold project to entrench the fire after three attempts proved unsuccessful and far more costly than expected.
Over the next decade and a half, the underground fire continued to burn as unsuspecting townspeople walked above the soil.
The problem was again realized in 1979, when a gas station owner inserted a dipstick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level and it came out hot. He lowered a thermometer on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F.
The following year, residents of the community began reporting adverse health effects from the byproducts of the fire: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and low oxygen levels.
In 1981, a 12-year-old boy named Todd Domboski was playing in his backyard when a 4 ft. wide, 150 ft. deep, sinkhole opened beneath his feet. Clinging to a tree root, the boy held on for dear life while his 14-year-old cousin, Eric Wolfgang, saved his life by pulling him from the hole which was billowing hot steam containing lethal levels of carbon monoxide.
Describing the fire in his 1986 publication, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire, David DeKok wrote, “This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.
In just a handful of years, the town’s population dropped from +1,000 (1980) to 63 (1990), to 21 (2000) to 10 (2010).
In 1984, Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts of the townspeople. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers from the Federal government and moved to the nearby communities of Mount Carmel and Ashland. A few families opted to stay despite urgings against doing so from Pennsylvania officials.
In 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain on all properties in the borough, condemning all the buildings within. A subsequent legal effort by residents to have the decision reversed failed.
In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked Centralia’s ZIP code, 17927, and in 2009, the Commonwealth began formally evicting the remaining residents of Centralia.
By July 2012, the last remaining holdouts of the community once known as Centralia lost their final appeal and were again ordered to leave. State and local officials, however, reached an agreement with the seven remaining residents on October 29, 2013, allowing them to live out their lives in Centralia, after which the rights of their properties will be taken through eminent domain.
Today, the half-century old underground coal fire of Centralia serves as a reminder to the nation of the delicate balance that is life on earth.
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