Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Centralia, Pennsylvania

Vaughn’s post on Saltville below got me thinking about industrial disasters in the Appalachians. There are probably thousands of individual coal mining accidents that can be told but I'll only touch on two that involve the black diamond.

In 1972, a slurry (liquid coal waste) impoundment dam at Buffalo Creek Hollow (Logan Co., WV) failed, unleashing over 130 million gallons of sludge down the valley through 16 mining communities. 125 people we killed, 1,121 were injured and over 4,000 people were left homeless. The total population of this valley was approx. 5,000. 625 survivors sued the Pittston Coal Company but settle out of court for $13.5M. Typically, attorneys earn somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/3 of the settlement. Using that number, each survivor won $7,200.

Probably the worst story that I have heard about takes place in the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. I first heard about this town when I read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”. Here is an excerpt of his book that goes into amazingly sad detail of how a small Appalachian boom town met its demise:

“Centralia was a sturdy little pit community. However difficult life may have been for the early miners, by the second half of the twentieth century Centralia was a prosperous, snug, hardworking town. It had a thriving business district, with banks and a post office and the normal range of shops and department stores, a high school, four churches, an Odd Fellows Club, a town hall – in short, a typical, pleasant contentedly anonymous small American town.

Unfortunately, it also sat on twenty-four million tons of anthracite (anthracite is a type of coal that is hard to light but once it starts burning it is nearly impossible to put out). In 1962, a fire in a dump on the edge of town ignited a coal seam. The fire department poured thousands of gallons of water on the fire, but each time they seemed to have it extinguished it came back, like those little birthday candles that go out for a moment and then spontaneously reignite. And then, very slowly, the fire began to eat its way along the subterranean seams. Smoke began to rise eerily from the ground over a wide area, like steam off a lake at dawn. On Highway 61, the pavement grew warm to the touch, then began to crack and settle, rendering the road unusable. The smoking zone passed under the highway and fanned through a neighboring woodland and up and towards St. Ignatius Catholic Church on a knoll above the town.

The U.S. Bureau of Mines brought in experts, who proposed a number of possible remedies – digging a deep trench through the town, deflecting the course of the fire with explosives, flushing the whole thing out hydraulically – but the cheapest proposal would have cost $20 million, with no guarantee that it would work, and in any case no one was empowered to spend that kind of money. So, the fire burned on.

In 1979, the owner of a gas station near the center of town found that the temperature in his underground tanks was registering 172 degrees. Sensors sunk into the earth showed that the temperature thirteen feet below the tanks was almost 1000 degrees. Elsewhere, people were discovering that their cellar walls and floors were hot to the touch. By now smoke was seeping from the ground all over town, and people were beginning to grow nauseated and faint from the increased levels of carbon-dioxide in their homes. In 1981, a twelve year old boy was playing in his grandmother’s backyard when a plume of smoke appeared in front of him. As he stared at it, the ground suddenly opened up around him. He clung to tree roots until someone heard his calls and hauled him out. The hole was found to be eighty feet deep. Within days, similar cave-ins were appearing all over town. It was then that the people started getting serious about the fire.

The Federal Government came up with $42 million to evacuate the town. As people moved out , their houses were bulldozed and the rubble was neatly, fastidiously cleared away until almost no buildings remained. So today Centralia isn’t really a ghost town. It’s just a big open space with a grid of empty streets still surreally furnished with stop signs and fire hydrants. Every thirty feet or so there is a paved driveway going fifteen yards to nowhere. There are still a few houses around – all of them modest, narrow, wood framed structures stabilized with brick buttresses – and a couple of buildings in what was once the central business district.”

Bryson continues his visit to Centralia and finds that the library still is standing and is full of information on the fires. There he stumbles across a Newsweek article quoting a mine fire authority official stating that if the current rate of burning held steady, there was enough coal under Centralia to burn for a thousand years. If you visit this site, you can find photos taken as recently as 2005 of Centalia, and yes, the ground is still smoking.


Elvis Drinkmo said...

Cool blog! and nice description too. I love it.

How difficult it is to convince outsiders that we are neither the redneck, hatemongering inbreds often portrayed in Hollywood nor the helpless fawns incapable of determining our course in life reliant upon the ARC.

Well, my hats off to you all from your fellow Appalachian Blog Ring member.

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