Pennsylvania Highway 61 Revisited: The Conundrum of Coal-Seam Fires and the Ghosts of Centralia

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In the middle of coal country, a fire burns.

Not an ordinary fire, mind you. This fire smolders slowly, underground, out of sight and mostly out of mind. It only makes its presence known through the steam that it vents and the occasional collapse of a portion of the ground it sits under.

This fire has been burning for almost sixty years, and it is widely assumed that it will be hundreds of years before it is extinguished. It has claimed a road, several homes, and led to the abandonment of two towns and decades of legal battles.

And yet, despite its unusual nature, it is not alone. Thousands of similar fires exist around the world. Many, like this one, have no containment or extinguishment plan. Many, like this one, are close enough to populated areas to raise health and safety concerns. And many, like this one, serve as a reminder that our path to carbon neutrality will involve not only hard choices but substantial restorative resources and a drastic reframing of the treatment of rural stakeholders.

I.

With renewed interest in Area 51 these days, the Kasza environmental lawsuit is back in public view. That suit, from the mid-1990s, alleged that at least part of the Cold War–era operations of Area 51 included incinerating military equipment so as to protect state secrets, and that workers breathing in the fumes, including Wally Kasza and Robert Frost, developed rare diseases as a result of inhaling various metals and other toxins.

But in the days before the Clean Air Act, despite the knowledge that releasing these kinds of compounds into the atmosphere would have ill effects, incinerating trash was still done out in the open as an easy way to get rid of it. The town of Centralia, Pennsylvania did so every year in anticipation of the Memorial Day holiday.

Centralia was a town much like many others in eastern Pennsylvania. While it would likely be seen as qualitatively “rural” by today’s standards, it was large enough to support two theaters, 14 grocery stores, and 27 saloons around the turn of the century, at the height of coal mining activity. But by May 1962, the largest coal mining companies had already left the area, driven by a combination of factors that were exacerbated by the Great Depression. The town had been able to acquire coal rights to the entire area, but only a few official operations still continued. The town’s population had dwindled to roughly 1400.

The landfill burn commenced on May 27, 1962, and it was allowed to continue to ensure complete incineration. However, unlike previous years, the landfill had been moved to a new spot southeast of town, and in the following days, the fire seemed to pop up repeatedly despite having been seemingly extinguished before. It soon became clear that the fire had spread to the network of mine tunnels below the town, and that the coal vein itself was on fire.

II.

Coal-seam fires are not always the result of human meddling. Elkford, British Columbia made a tourist attraction out of a burning coal seam that caught on fire in the 1960s as a result of a lightning strike and forest fire. Perhaps more strikingly, the Smoking Hills on the northern coast of Canada have a mixture of sulfur and brown coal that automatically ignites when it’s exposed to oxygen, creating a continuous burning, aided by erosion, that is estimated to have started nearly a thousand years ago.

But as with many climate issues, our influence has made the problem substantially worse. There are an estimated 200 active burn sites in the United States alone, and in places like Indonesia, where coal outcrops are exceedingly common, there may be tens or even hundreds of thousands coal fires burning at any given time, especially as the most common method of clearing land for agriculture is by burning the native vegetation.

Indeed, coal fires tend to accompany coal mining wherever it goes. The oldest coal fire still burning in Pennsylvania is the Burning Mine in the aptly-named Carbon County, which started burning in 1859. And the combustible nature of coal makes these fires possible by virtually any means: the Laurel Run fire, burning since 1915 less than one mile from the Wilkes-Barre city limits, was ostensibly the result of a stray spark from a mining lamp that hit a support plank and then spread to the rest of the mine. The fire in New Straitsville, Ohio, on the other hand, was the result of a labor dispute. In 1884, during a strike, a small group of workers sent a cart full of burning wood into the mine. 135 years later, smoke still rises from the Wayne National Forest nearby.

These coal seam fires, both natural and manmade, are estimated to account for roughly three percent of all carbon emissions (and about three percent of all mercury emissions) worldwide.

III.

At first, the state tried to go directly at the fire. But so much of the underlying mines had already been abandoned for decades, and people trying to extract coal for themselves had inadvertently collapsed a number of tunnels that would have been useful for this purpose. An initial $20,000 excavation project inadvertently fueled the fire by allowing large quantities of oxygen to rush into the mine tunnels, and this and a second flushing project both ran out of funds.

So instead, they started to dig a trench between the town and the mines. But before the trench was even completed, it was determined that the fire had already passed under it.

After more fits and starts, a barrier of ash was constructed between 1969 and 1974. But it was later determined that portions of this barrier had failed as early as 1972.

While repairs were being made to the ash barrier in 1979, the extent of the problem came into further relief. The owner of the only gas station in town, one of the closest structures to the burning mines, discovered that the temperature of the gasoline stored at his station was 172 degrees. Within weeks, the tanks were drained and the gas station was closed, slated for demolition as soon as the owner could be relocated.

Meanwhile, reports of various toxic gases, including carbon monoxide, were becoming more regular, including at one of the schools in town. After a boy narrowly escaped a sudden sinkhole filled with several times the lethal concentration of carbon monoxide in 1981, a new study was commissioned to determine the exact extent of the underground fire. The study concluded in 1983 that the fire had spread over 195 acres underground, including much of the southern portion of the town, and would require approximately $660 million ($1.7 billion in 2019 dollars) to excavate and extinguish.

Instead, the federal government approved $42 million for voluntary relocation.

IV.

I took a winding path to Centralia despite the availability of a rather direct route from I-80. Instead, I decided to meander through the Ridge and Valley Province, a geological formation unlike almost any other worldwide and part of the reason coal deposits are so plentiful in Pennsylvania. The initial towns along the way mirrored my experiences in rural Ohio, with dots of dense development surrounded by vast expanses of farmland.

But in continuing to push eastward, the subtle indicators of coal infrastructure started to creep into the picture. Barns and silos gave way, gradually, to more industrial-looking buildings. Shoulders started to appear on roads to accommodate freight vehicles. And rail infrastructure, even if in disuse or disrepair, appeared with increasing frequency.

The last town I passed through before reaching Centralia was named Mount Carmel, a town of about 6,000 (down from a peak of about 18,000). At the last bend in the road before crossing Shamokin Creek and entering the main street grid, a solitary building was marked with three words: ADDICTION HELP CENTER.

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The main road through town, PA Route 61, was lined with churches and historical houses. But in tabbing around Street View in the other sections of town, if not for the mountains in the background in almost every direction, you could convince me that these endless rows of duplexes were found in outer Queens or in the Bronx.

The town square, ringed by churches and rowhouses, contains one structure within the park: the fire station, which still bears a neon sign reading “Anthracite Fire Co.” Throughout town, other locations echo the area’s longstanding economic engine with names like “Hard Coal Cafe” or “Anthracite Baseball Field”.

For our world to continue, the coal industry has to die. But it stands to reason that for the people of Mount Carmel, that sounds like a personal attack. Their families came, and then stayed, largely for the promise of coal jobs. Their hometown was built by coal, and it has no other obvious alternative for its livelihood. Killing the coal industry sounds like signing a death warrant for them and their town.

And if we don’t offer a good alternative to the people of Mount Carmel, they will be right.

V.

In the late 1980s, concerns began to arise about the southern road out of Centralia, a stretch of PA Route 61 that was beginning to emit steam and buckle due to the effects of the fire below it. PennDOT’s initial response was to inject water and gravel under the road to shore it up, but this had no effect. As a result, about a mile of Route 61 was condemned, and a back road that had previously served the town of Byrnesville, another town abandoned due to the fire, was widened and recurved to state route standards.

In recent years, this condemned stretch of road has become home to layers upon layers of graffiti, a patchwork of messages from locals and from tourists, with craftsmanship from the crude to the meticulous. Amongst all the obscenity, there is plenty of substance. And while it may be foolish to try to impute messages written over other messages on a condemned road to the local community as a whole, there are echoes of the same hopes and fears attributed in mainstream media to both rural folks and young folks.

I could not tell whether the smell in the air was fresh paint, fumes from the still-smoldering fire, or just my mind searching for an odor that wasn’t there. (Carbon monoxide, after all, is fully odorless.)

VI.

Four people still live in Centralia, despite the voluntary relocations becoming mandatory decades ago. Eminent domain was officially invoked in 1992 and was upheld on appeal, but the election of Tom Ridge in 1994 led to the state pausing enforcement. Eviction proceedings started anew in 2009, but after several additional court appeals, the state settled with the remaining seven residents and allowed them to stay in their homes for the remainder of their lives. Despite the decommissioning of the zip code (17927) in 2002, the borough still officially exists; it is the lowest-population municipality in the state.

I moved a lot as a child, and the pace of my moves has only increased as an adult. The concept of home for me, as somebody who has lived in 16 different places in eight different municipalities, will never be more than a vague and mushy agglomeration of concepts and ideas.

This is not true for many of the residents of Centralia, even past the seven that remained. We are raised, culturally, to have a strong sense of place, both in the United States and elsewhere. Regardless of claims of our entrepreneurial spirit, there is still an assumption that facing unknowns, whether in your location or your social life, takes courage, especially during times of uncertainty. Perhaps this is part of why the rural population in the United States continues to grow (albeit at a rate slower than the growth rate of the country as a whole), despite the lack of infrastructure to serve them (one prominent article about Centralia from 2018 notes that “cell phone reception is hard to come by”, a far cry from any urban area today).

I don’t necessarily know what the best path forward is for the Centralia fire, or the Laurel Run fire, or any of these other fires, from a policy standpoint. But we’ve spent a century ignoring them and sweeping them under the rug, as with many issues, economic and non-economic, that face rural communities. And while this does not excuse any unacceptable beliefs that may have developed as a result, there is plenty of value in understanding moments like Centralia and framing the path forward in a way that doesn’t either ignore or pander to those communities’ concerns.

Indeed, if we are to successfully leave coal, oil, and natural gas in the ground,  threading that needle is likely not just useful, but rather necessary.

Our future depends on it.

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