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Fire in the Hole

Raging in mines from Pennsylvania to China, coal fires threaten towns, poison air and water, and add to global warming

Not all of the fires are left to burn; when a blaze threatens buildings or roads, OSM tries to contain it. And often when a new fire is discovered, firefighters may succeed in putting it out. Driving north on Interstate 81 from Wilkes- Barre in his pickup truck, OSM mining engineer David Philbin pointed out grassy spots where the agency replanted vegetation after a fire had been successfully extinguished. On the outskirts of Carbondale, he showed me his greatest triumph: the former Powderly Mine, where a fire of unknown origin broke out in 1995. The agency spent $5.5 million and seven years blasting and moving rock to carve a C-shaped trench 2,150 feet long, 70 feet wide and 150 feet deep. Philbin thinks the fire may burn another 20 years behind the trench but should eventually go out. “My finest moment,” he grins. “I’m the architect of this hole.”

Digging it was dangerous. Frontloader drivers carried emergency oxygen masks as they ripped smoking coal from the fire edge. The vertical walls of the trench could drop tenton boulders. Even now, as heat bakes and cracks the “hot” side of the trench, giant shards regularly split off. Philbin led the way down through a gap in the fence on the hot side, past steaming fissures and hot rock faces. At the base of the trench wall—where three of Philbin’s colleagues refused to accompany us—lay hundreds of tons of fresh rockfall. “Well, to outwit a fire, someone’s gotta stick his nose in,” he said, clambering over debris. In the trench walls were intact coal seams and old tunnel timbers that had not burned. “I like this,” Philbin said. “There’s adventure here. Some Sherlock Holmes. We think it’s contained. But of course a lot of people have been fooled by these things. Personally, I’d like to dig the whole thing out.”

Philbin will likely never get the chance. Funds are limited, and to a certain degree, coal field residents who are in no immediate danger accept fires as part of the backdrop, like subway noise in New York City or drizzle in Seattle. On the slope behind Philbin’s Wilkes-Barre office, another fire, the forgotten cousin of Centralia, has been smoldering in Laurel Run since 1915. Every attempt to put it out has failed. When gases erupted under one neighborhood in the 1960s, nearly 200 buildings had to be demolished, including 178 houses. Today that section of Laurel Run is a wasteland, frequented by illegal garbage dumpers and teens on all-terrain vehicles. But many people still live in adjacent neighborhoods. The access road to a nearby mobile-home park occasionally slumps, necessitating repairs. “I know if you’re from somewhere else, it seems strange, but to me it’s nothing unusual,” says resident Gene Driscoll, 49, a construction worker who lives at the park. “I’ve seen fires all my life. No one really worries about it.”

But it’s a different story in Centralia, where just about every year the little band of holdouts is reduced by death or departure. Lokitis, a civilian accountant for the state police, has been the only resident on WestPark since his neighbors, Bernie and Helen Darrah, died in 1996. The Darrahs’ house still stands, but the rest of the street is lined with lots vacant except for grass, a patch of backyard forsythia and the town’s small monument to its war veterans. Still, Lokitis points out that the fire has never actually killed anyone. In fact, he says, people here live to ripe old ages—Pop, for example, died at 84 in 2002. Lokitis says he just ignores the occasional whiff of sulfur that comes his way. The fire has not reached his house, because, he insists, it’s protected by groundwater and rock—and Pop assured him it never would. Pop knew the underground around here like the back of his hand, Lokitis adds.

Centralia continues to hold municipal elections—8 of the town’s 12 residents are officeholders. A $4,000 state budget covers maintenance costs, including the clearing of snow. Lokitis mows what used to be neighbors’ yards “to keep things looking neat.” Near an empty intersection of four-way stop signs that once marked the center of town, a gleaming volunteer fire truck stands ready to roll. “Of course, we don’t have any fires to put out,” says Mayor Mervine. When the U.S. Postal Service finally revoked Centralia’s ZIP code three years ago, Lokitis mounted a fruitless campaign to restore it, then stenciled the extinct code, 17927, on green park benches. And when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, someone tied yellow ribbons on four nearby telephone poles. At Christmas, a few former residents faithfully return to set up a manger scene. Lokitis claims many will turn up in 2016 to open a time capsule buried in 1966 next to the veterans’ memorial.

In addition to the tourists, scientists come to Centralia as well, to study volcano-like minerals forming around cracks in the soil and to probe for unusual heat-loving bacteria. TV and newspaper reporters show up, seeking offbeat features. Recently, a delegation of Russian scholars studying industrial disasters came calling. “Sometimes you feel like an exhibit,” says Lokitis.

Mayor Mervine was pictured in Esquire not long ago, over a caption reading: “I ain’t leaving.” Wild turkeys, hummingbirds, deer and rabbits have replaced crammed-in row houses. Recently, a black bear ambled down South Troutwine. Since no one owns property, no one pays property taxes, and the parking situation could hardly be improved. City councilman John Comarnisky is talking half-seriously about buying a few bison, putting them out to pasture, and promoting Centralia as the Yellowstone of the East. To hear some people talk, the place is coming back.

In his heart, Lokitis may know better. When Pop was buried next to Lokitis’ grandmother at St. Ignatius last year, the grandson selected a headstone of polished, jet-black granite—a stone resembling top-grade anthracite. On the monument, a mason etched portraits of the couple, as well as images of St. Ignatius Church, the entry to the R&L Coal tunnel, and the house where Lokitis lives. “I wanted a permanent memorial of this place,” he said. Steam rises about 100 feet from his home and seeps even closer from the grave just up the hill. But for now, the grass is still green.

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