Sunday, November 21, 2010

Centralia: Past Tragedy or Future Forecast?

I wanted to post another nice holiday-oriented recipe for everybody--that may happen in the near future.
But not today. In doing some routine surfing I stumbled across the tragic history of Centralia, a coal town that began dying in 1962. It seems not to be quite finished even now.
Here is how it began: a dump fire was started near the town. It was a routine thing at that time of year; but not in that year. The burning trash set a nearby coal vein alight, the fire spread beneath the town of 1100 people, and it has not been anything like close to contained since. Cellars under homes began to fill with carbon monoxide, the ground began to buckle, and cracks--often many feet long and many feet deep--appeared in the streets and roads. Eventually the state Department of Environmental Resources posted a sign that said:
"WARNING-DANGER. Walking Or Driving In This Area Could Result In Serious Injury Or Death. Dangerous Gases Are Present. Ground Is Prone To Sudden Collapse."
Most people left, over the years. Some did not, including the stubborn octogenarian mayor and a 39-year-old man who had known no other home. Hopefully they and the remaining diehards are out and safe by now. Like other Centralians, they may find it hard to heal. Their dreams are likely to be haunted by smoke, flames, and poison gas. A hell in their minds.
How was this mini-apocalypse allowed to develop? It seems there was no money to fight it. (By the way, a tragedy like this is the best possible explanation of why we need adequately funded and efficient government. Otherwise, the catastrophes that ensue may affect us, not only our neighbors.)
We are told that the Centralia fire, even once it has finished destroying the town, can threaten nearby communities such as Mount Carmel, miles away. We are told it can continue to burn for another 250 YEARS.
Apparently underground coal mine fires are not that infrequent. There have been hundreds of them--not, of course, counting the ones we don't even hear about because they may be set off by a lightning flash striking a coal vein in a forest somewhere. For some years there was a fire burning in a vein near the old Switchback Railway in Mauch Chunk, now Jim Thorpe. There is one in Laurel Run which started in 1912 and could go for hundreds of years.
For an idea of what these fires can do when they get nasty, background yourself on Centralia. There's a lot of stuff on the web, including an article called "Last Centralia, PA residents finally fleeing coal fire" at, as well as a horrific photo forum about the town, put up by Fine Scale Modeling Magazine. I can't give you the full url on that because, frankly, I don't understand it; but it begins as something like If that doesn't work, try googling it. That is, if you want to see a lot of photos that will terrify you.
Why have I spent this time and space on Centralia? It's a sad story, but surely it's now almost in the past?
But is it? Pennsylvania is now in the throes of a new kind of energy development--the natural gas development. We need the energy and jobs, but... Could natural gas produce the same sort of calamity that coal has produced in Columbia County and elsewhere? Or one like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?
We can't rule it out. And, if we don't want it to come to pass, it behooves us to shepherd the work of our legislators and other public officials involved with natural gas and other energy sources. Disasters cannot always be prevented, but sometimes forethought and advance planning can help avoid, delay, or minimize the blow. And that foresight and planning must begin with us, the citizenry, demanding that it happen.
Start now. Let your legislators know that you want careful and responsible development Because sometimes the BIG political disasters (not to mention social, economic, and environmental ones) happen between elections.

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