Slow Burn

Reporter / by Joseph Calamia /

Since 1962, a coal fire has been raging beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania, and it may continue burning for centuries. When the very ground beneath your feet catches fire, how can you extinguish the blaze?

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“Because it was in a relatively contained area and it wasn’t down all that deep, I think they definitely could have stopped the fire—if they had mounted an excavation project with enough money to do the job right,” said David DeKok, who covered the Centralia mine fire for 8 years for the local newspaper, The News-Item. “That’s the key, and that’s been the key all along, having enough money to do the job right.” Some geologists argue that doing the job right requires a brute-force fix:  digging up all of the coal. Though this technique will always work, for many of today’s fires, it is almost always seen as too expensive.

“You can’t really remove the air. I mean, how are you going to do that, really? The heat is in the ground and that too is very difficult to remove. You’re left with removing the fuel,” Michalski said. “If you are going to put all your money on something,” he said, “let’s dig out the coal and get rid of it. Then there is nothing left to burn.” In 1982, the US Office of Surface Mining hired Michalski’s company to evaluate possible solutions for the Centralia mine fire. One suggestion was just this—removal of all the coal, or “total excavation.” They would start 30 to 150 meters outside the known location of the fire and dig inwards, slowly surrounding the fire and halting its escape. Pulling out piles of burning coal, they would quench the fire with water spray, and then use the excavated earth and rock to fill in the land behind them. In 1982, GAI estimated that such a feat would require pulling 71 million cubic meters from the ground and relocating almost 100 buildings. The price tag:  $663 million.

The state opted to move everyone out. “That was a very expensive fix, Michalski said of the excavation plan, “Of course, in the long run, maybe it would have been worth it. If the fire actually spreads to 5,000 acres [20 square kilometers], maybe that would have been a bargain.” The executive summary of the GAI report cites the cost of moving everyone at around $50 million, $20 million for purchasing residents’ properties and the rest to move churches and businesses. These prices did not include the cost of relocating Route 61 or the value of the abandoned coal reserves. Today, as the international demand for coal grows, the declined “bargain” grows increasingly clear. Coal’s price (custom import value) increased in 2008 alone by over 25 percent. Miners now process even the refuse from old mining operations, an attempt to salvage every scrap of the precious fuel.

In the beginning, digging out Centralia’s burning coal might have been cheap. When the fire started in 1962, according to DeKok’s first book, an experienced miner named Alonzo Sanchez offered the town’s council to do it for merely the coal he pulled out. They refused.

Even when it’s too expensive to dig out all of the fuel, digging out just a portion in trenches has proven a successful way to confine some of these fires. “We’ve worked on several fires up in the anthracite fields, and we have never extinguished any of them,” Michalski said, “but we have isolated some of them so that they can’t spread.” If the trench is deep enough and in the right location, it can remove the fire’s fuel path, confining it to one location. Michalski recently sent an unsolicited plan to Harrisburg for a new trench in Centralia. “I had tremendous interest in that,” Michalski said, “but that’s as far as that went. Nobody wants to get their fingers dirty on Centralia.”

Though the mines still burn, certain research groups are now looking to tap the fire’s power—either from its heat or combustible gases venting into the air. Doing this might even provide a way to clean the emissions, removing greenhouses gases. “Our purpose here at the Department of Environmental Protection is still to put out these fires,” Edwards explained, “but, for the ones that can’t be put out, we would encourage people to come up with other ideas.” Edwards imagines a greenhouse on top of an abandoned mine, the plants using the carbon dioxide and providing natural sequestration. “With new advances in geothermal energy, it doesn’t have to be a generating station that serves thousands of homes to make something usable and profitable. We have tried to interest greenhouses, warehouses, even hotels—any energy-intensive structure that could use this heat,” he said.

The Earth Conservancy, based in Ashley, Pennsylvania, is one such group, and has worked to harness geothermal energy from the Laurel Run Mine fire, burning since 1915. Jacqueline Dickman, Director of Public Affairs & Development for Earth Conservancy, says that plans cannot proceed until her organization can find partners to help shoulder the “massive investment” needed to start the project. Edwards suspects that funding doesn’t come easy for such research groups:  “It’s more flashy to be working on solar or wind, then to continue on with dirty coal.”

“I remember Helen Womer who lived not too far from Main Street near the Catholic church on the hill,” said Steve Kroll-Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, recalling a Centralia resident. “She was one of the famous cases. She went in her back yard, pulled up a clump of carrots, and the carrots themselves were burned halfway up. Helen didn’t see this as a risk. She just cut the burnt pieces off, cooked the rest, and served them.”

Kroll-Smith lived in Centralia while completing fieldwork for his own book, The Real Disaster is Above the Ground, published in 1990. He ties part of Centralia’s calamity to divisions in the community. “Centralia itself was not by any means unanimous that they had a problem,” he said. “If the community splits itself, then you have less political need to go in and address the problem.” Kroll-Smith also ties Centralia’s fate to the region’s working-class population. “Let’s say that you had landslide risks in Telluride in Colorado, where you have an enormous amount of money,” he said. “That money is very powerful, so those folks are able to bring a good deal of pressure and presence and see that their needs are met.”

DeKok questions the community’s political representation. “Centralia really did suffer early on from not having officials that knew too much about mine fires,” he said. A tiny anthracite borough on the cusp of a county otherwise devoted to farming, Centralia, DeKok argues, was an anomaly in Columbia County. He contrasts the treatment of the Centralia Mine fire with the Cedar Avenue fire, which threatened 25 percent of Scranton and Carbondale:  “They understood the sort of havoc that mine fires could bring to a community.”

Michalski tries to visit Centralia once every couple of years. He described one such visit in 1997 to both the Centralia Mine and the Percy Mine, when he brought with him engineers, geologists, and politicians, not from Pennsylvania, but from India. “They walked on the ground. They saw the fires. They looked at me, and do you know what they said? ‘Do you consider this a problem?’”

In 1916, about 240 kilometers northwest of Calcutta, in the state of Jharkhand, it’s believed that spontaneous combustion and poor mining practices started the Jharia Coalfield on fire. There are now over 60 active fires in the mining complex. They have consumed 40 million tons of coal and they threaten the lives in the city above them.

In 1992, The World Bank hired GAI and other consultants to embark on a 21-month study to evaluate the situation and plan solutions. Evaluating amidst catastrophe, they didn’t finish until 1997. In 1995, a subsidence from an ongoing mine fire, near the bank of Katri Jore, diverted a waterway into an active mining area. Seventy-four men died. Michalski authored a 2004 article in the International Journal of Coal Geology. He described mitigation efforts as “almost hopeless” —without more funding, better firefighting techniques, and more attention, Jharia’s fires will continue. 

“There are flames coming out of the ground,” Michalski said. “It’s just an ongoing daily disaster where people are exposed to poisons, threats to their lives, and cave-ins—and nobody really cares.”

In Columbia County, concrete stairs that once led to a home now welcome visitors to an empty lot of trees and grass. A single row house leans against brick braces, lending the support formerly given by neighbors.

Standing on the site of the former Centralia dump, old metal vents choke on rocks and trash, their metal cages gigantic wastepaper baskets. In the distance, wind turbines have grown from the hills, harnessing a new energy from the mountains.

“Did you see any smoking vents?” a young tourist yelled out her car window. Her boyfriend put their Jeep into low gear as they tried to mount the hills of dirt blocking Route 61.

Perhaps they found a landfill behind a cemetery, a crack in an abandoned road, or a sewer grating exhaling wisps of smoke. Perhaps they saw something spectacular.


Originally published June 24, 2010

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Tags carbon development energy environment risk

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