In 1962 the small town of Centralia Pennsylvania, population 1,100, decided to use an abandoned strip mine as a landfill. Those constructing the landfill were instructed to fill in the many holes created by failed mine shafts with fire resistant material before they filled the area with trash. Soon after opening, there was a trash fire at the landfill that was extinguished over the course of a day. While cleaning up the mess created by the fire, 15 feet hole was discovered that led directly to the underlying coal mines. This hole allowed the fire to ignite the extensive coal seam under the city and surrounding area.
In 1969 the coal seam was still smoldering, so a trench was dug in front of the coal fire to stop its advance. Unfortunately, only a handful of construction workers were hired, they worked only a few hours a day, and were given Memorial Day off of work. By the time the trench was completed several days after initiation, the fire had managed to spread past the trench.
The fire was thought to be extinguished until 1979 when a local gas station owner discovered that the underground gas tanks had a dangerously high temperature of 172˚ F. This discovery raised the town’s concern over the dangers of the fire.
In 1981 the still burning coal fire turned dangerous when a hole 4 feet wide and 150 feet deep suddenly opened up under a 12 year old boy while playing in his grandma’s backyard. Similar incidents of mine subsidence occurred in town and noxious gas emanated from the ground. Chronic respiratory illnesses were reported throughout the town.
A small example of mine subsidence.
In 1983 another plan to build a trench was proposed to contain the growing coal mine fire. The plan was to dig a 500 feet trench around the entire town to stop the fire from spreading to the other towns nearby. This would force all residents to abandon their homes and evacuate the town. The town’s people felt that this plan definitively proved that the government was just trying to seize control of the mineral rights to the underlying coal that would be worth thousands of dollars. After a state government review, it was determined that the proposed plan was too expensive, so it was decided to just let the fire burn itself out. Though the fire was left to burn, the government decided to buy out all of the town properties and evict the people.
By 1991 Most of the buildings in Centralia were demolished and the highway leading to the town was closed, and in 1992 all remaining buildings were claimed through eminent domain and condemned.
As of 2006, only 11 people remained in town and refuse to surrender their property. The fire continues to burn and cause damage to the area. The highway passing thorough a nearby town has suffered repeated damage from the fire and has been permanently diverted around the area.
This is an image of the damage to the highway caused by the fire.
Currently, the fire underlies 400 acres and is still spreading. Steam vents, unstable ground, carbon monoxide, and poor air quality are a few of the dangers from the fire.
Sign posted on the outside of town to warn travelers.
Legal action is under way to evict the last 9 remaining residents of Centralia while the residents fight to overturn the states claim of eminent domain. The city is no longer shown on maps and its postal code was revoked. If left alone, the fire could continue to spread and burn for another 250 years.
Image of Centralia taken in 2001. Follow this link for more 2001 images of the town.
I decided to post this because Centralia Pennsylvania is a tragic example of the damage that fossil fuels can cause. Most people consider the effects of burning coal for electricity, but few realize the hazards created from obtaining the coal. The Centralia fire started because of abandoned coal mines that were not properly sealed. The immense underground fire will burn for centuries and emit large quantities of carbon dioxide and noxious gasses into the atmosphere. Even today the town is affected by our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. The nine remaining residents living in Centralia refuse to leave because they believe the government is trying to steal their mineral rights. They do not accept that they must abandon the area due to immense health concerns and physical danger. It is our nation’s high investment in coal that is keeping the residents of Centralia and others like them from doing what is in their best interest for their health. Coal mining accidents are common and can cause great harm to all involved. These accidents could be reduced if our dependency on coal derived energy was reduced. At some point there comes a time when obtaining coal and other fossil fuels will become very dangerous and we must make a choice between what is cheap and what is safe.