Fire in the Hole

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

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Generations of engineers and geologists have puzzled over how to fight these behemoths. “We’ve learned the hard way— total excavation is usually the only thing,” says Alfred Whitehouse, a geologist with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM). Last year, when range fires near Gillette, Wyoming, set off 60 blazes in coal outcrops, the federal Bureau of Land Management sent a helicopter to map hot spots, then used heavy equipment to dig out the burning fires. It worked. “Those fires are nasty little rascals. You can’t let ’em go,” says Bud Peyrot, a rancher who has bulldozed a number of hot spots on his place.

But extinguishing relatively small underground fires with bulldozers and backhoes is one thing. Dealing with firebreathing monsters the size of the one in Centralia poses an altogether different magnitude of challenge. Eastern Pennsylvania sits on the world’s greatest deposits of anthracite—shiny, hard, clean-burning, high-BTU coal in deep beds, squeezed and twisted by the formation of ridges like the one that rises behind John Lokitis’ house. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, miners reached the anthracite deposits through mazes of tunnels, shafts and gangways. If a fire got started in them, miners were usually able to extinguish it before it spread. Then oil and gas replaced anthracite as premier home heating fuels. By the 1950s, most Pennsylvania anthracite mines had been abandoned. Entrances caved in; tunnels began to fill with rubble. Later, strip miners with modern equipment came at the coal from the surface, but they could never reach it all. The result was a landscape of stony debris on top of leftover underground coal laced by interconnected airways—a perfect setting for a coal fire.

The Centralia fire probably got going in May 1962, when local sanitation workers began burning trash at a site over an old mine entrance just outside town, igniting the underlying coal. Over some 20 years, firefighters tried eight times to put it out. First they dug trenches, but the fire outpaced them. Then they attempted “flushing”—a process that involves augering holes into or ahead of a fire, and pouring down wet sand, gravel, slurries of cement and fly ash to cut off oxygen. (Flushing nearly always fails because of the difficulty of filling every pore space. In addition, because coal fires can exceed 1,000 degrees F, most fill material burns away, leaving more gaps. For both of these reasons, the flushing attempt did not succeed.) Next, state and federal geologists drilled hundreds of exploratory boreholes to define the fire, then dug a huge trench across its supposed path. But the fire had already spread beyond the trench. Some critics believe the digging helped ventilate the fire.

Flooding the area with water was rejected: it is nearly impossible to inundate a large underground area, especially one as complex and well drained as Centralia. In any case, water would have had to be pumped in for years to dissipate the fire’s heat. Afinal solution, to dig a pit three-quarters of a mile long and deep as a 45-story building, would have cost $660 million, more than the value of property in town. It, too, was rejected.

Within a few months, the Centralia fire, which began on the town’s outskirts, had spread to its southern edge. At first, this development seemed more curious than calamitous. Kathy Gadinski, then 25, recalls harvesting tomatoes at Christmas from her naturally heated garden. Some folks no longer had to shovel snow. Then things took an ominous turn: residents began passing out in their houses—from carbon monoxide leaking in through their basements. Next, the underground gas tanks at Coddington’s Esso gas station, near St. Ignatius Church, started heating up. Route 61, the main road into town, dropped eight feet, and steam spurted out of cracks in the pavement. Then, in 1981, 12-year-old Todd Domboski was crossing through a resident’s backyard when a hole opened: he slid out of sight into a dense cloud of gases. The boy saved himself by clinging to a tree root until a cousin pulled him out. After that, just about everyone in Centralia accepted the most radical solution of all: let the mine burn. Most residents took the federal buyout and moved to neighboring towns; more than 600 buildings were demolished. “Putting it out is the impossible dream,” says Jones.

In 1992, the town’s remaining buildings were condemned; the state took title to Centralia. Lokitis and other die-hards became squatters, but authorities have not evicted anyone. Most of those who have chosen to remain are elderly, and “that would be very bad publicity,” says Lamar Mervine, Centralia’s flinty, 89-year-old mayor. “They don’t want another Waco here.” (That, he adds, was a joke.) It’s just that he and his wife, Lanna, also 89, like Centralia, even without many neighbors. With much of the demolition zone grassy and still visibly unaffected, they doubt the fire will reach their 15-foot-wide house, now splendidly isolated at 411 South Troutwine Street.

But Jones says everyone should have moved out years ago. Those who stay, he warns, could die any time from poison gases, whether there’s a fire under their property or not. On a recent tour of Centralia, Jones told me that the fire has spread to some 400 acres, growing like an amoeba, about 75 feet a year, along four separate arms. The blaze is most evident along the St.IgnatiusCemetery. The church was pulled down in 1997, but former residents still inter loved ones in the 138-year-old graveyard. (The local joke is that you can get buried and cremated at the same time, no extra charge.) “Actually,” says Jones, “I don’t think the cemetery itself is on fire. Except maybe that one little corner there.”

He points to empty plots where the grass is brown. Above steaming sinkholes lie heaps of hot, recently extruded clinker. Jones’ colleague, geologist Timothy Altares, sloshes water onto it: the liquid vaporizes. Then Jones spots a lone metal post—the remnant of a DANGER sign he once posted there. “People keep stealing souvenirs,” he growls. Tourists, he says, print directions from Internet sites and wander around snapping photographs. “This is a bad place. One day someone’s going to disappear down a sinkhole.”

Jones cannot say exactly where the fire is now—its perimeter is beyond the boreholes dug to define it. He believes it has crossed Big Mine Run Road, a short drive outside town, and is heading east. (A roadside sandstone cliff glowed cherry red for a while but now merely wisps steam.) Route 61, on the southwest limb of the fire, remains buckled and steaming; the state has created a detour through neighboring Byrnesville, also virtually abandoned, where just about the only landmark left is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, still maintained by the Reilley family, who no longer live here.

Some residents of nearby towns, such as Mount Carmel (pop. 6,389), fear the fire will reach them, but experts believe it will run out of fuel or hit groundwater before it does. Afew miles southwest of Centralia, two separate fires burn deep under mine waste near the village of Locust Gap. So far, the blazes seem confined to about a dozen acres, and it is hard to find surface evidence of them. Gary Greenfield, a geologist who works with Jones, says he doesn’t think either of them will reach any houses, but he admits that predicting underground fire paths is like predicting the weather. “I don’t think Locust Gap will become another Centralia,” he says. “At least not right away.” To the east, a fire has burned for at least 25 years near Shenandoah, opening fissures and emitting fumes, but so far causing no damage in the town itself.


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