Fire in the Hole
Raging in mines from Pennsylvania to China, coal fires threaten towns, poison air and water, and add to global warming
- By Kevin Krajick
- Smithsonian magazine, May 2005, Subscribe
From the back kitchen window of his little house on a ridge in east-central Pennsylvania, John Lokitis looks out on a most unusual prospect. Just uphill, at the edge of St.IgnatiusCemetery, the earth is ablaze. Vegetation has been obliterated along a quarter-mile strip; sulfurous steam billows out of hundreds of fissures and holes in the mud. There are pits extending perhaps 20 feet down: in their depths, discarded plastic bottles and tires have melted. Dead trees, their trunks bleached white, lie in tangled heaps, stumps venting smoke through hollow centers. Sometimes fumes seep across the cemetery fence to the grave of Lokitis’ grandfather, George Lokitis.
This hellish landscape constitutes about all that remains of the once-thriving town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Forty-three years ago, a vast honeycomb of coal mines at the edge of the town caught fire. An underground inferno has been spreading ever since, burning at depths of up to 300 feet, baking surface layers, venting poisonous gases and opening holes large enough to swallow people or cars. The conflagration may burn for another 250 years, along an eight-mile stretch encompassing 3,700 acres, before it runs out of the coal that fuels it.
Remarkably enough, nobody’s doing a thing about it. The federal and state governments gave up trying to extinguish the fire in the 1980s. “Pennsylvania didn’t have enough money in the bank to do the job,” says Steve Jones, a geologist with the state’s Office of Surface Mining. “If you aren’t going to put it out, what can you do? Move the people.”Nearly all 1,100 residents left after they were offered federally funded compensation for their properties. Their abandoned houses were leveled. Today Centralia exists only as an eerie grid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of a picket fence here, a chair spindle there—plus Lokitis and 11 others who refused to leave, the occupants of a dozen scattered structures. Lokitis, 35, lives alone in the house he inherited from “Pop”—his grandfather, a coal miner, as was Pop’s father before him. For fans of the macabre, lured by a sign warning of DANGER from asphyxiation or being swallowed into the ground, Centralia has become a tourist destination. For Lokitis, it is home.
Across the globe, thousands of coal fires are burning. Nearly impossible to reach and extinguish once they get started, the underground blazes threaten towns and roads, poison the air and soil and, some say, worsen global warming. The menace is growing: mines open coal beds to oxygen; human-induced fires or spontaneous combustion provides the spark. The United States, with the world’s largest coal reserves, harbors hundreds of blazes from Alaska to Alabama. Pennsylvania, the worst-afflicted state, has at least 38—an insignificant number compared with China (see sidebar, “Flaming Dragon,” p. 58) and India, where poverty, old unregulated mining practices and runaway development have created waves of Centralias. “It’s a worldwide catastrophe,” says geologist Anupma Prakash of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Some of the underground fires are natural occurrences. When coal, exposed at or near the surface by erosion, combines with oxygen, a chemical reaction produces heat. That process can build for years; low-grade, soft coals—crumbly and low in carbon—can spontaneously combust, at temperatures as low as 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightning or a brush fire can also ignite soft coal. The fires burn downward, acquiring air through fissures in rock and microscopic spaces between grains of dirt. An underground fire may smolder for years, or even decades, without showing signs on the surface. Eventually, however, in a process called subsidence, burning subterranean coal turns to ash, creating huge underground voids and causing overlying ground to crack and collapse—thus allowing more air in, which fans more fire. Much of the landscape of the American West— its mesas and escarpments—is the result of vast, ancient coal fires. Those conflagrations formed “clinker”—a hard mass of fused stony matter. Surfaces formed in this way resist erosion far better than adjacent unfired ones, leaving clinker outcrops. Many ancient fires like those still burn, from the Canadian Arctic to southeast Australia. Scientists estimate that Australia’s BurningMountain, the oldest known coal fire, has burned for 6,000 years. In the 19th century, explorers mistook the smoking summit for a volcano.
Natural though the fires may be, humans intensify the scale. China, for example, supplies 75 percent of its energy with coal as it hurtles toward industrialization. Due to mining of its vast coal fields, fires are spreading. Estimates vary, but some scientists believe that anywhere from 20 million to 200 million tons burn there each year, producing as much carbon dioxide as about 1 percent of the total carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned on earth. Another human intensifier: rural Chinese people tend to hand-dig household coal from hundreds of thousands of surface locations, then abandon them when the cavities get too deep. The practice leaves the earth punctured by countless small pits; inside, loose coal chunks and powder are exposed to air, making them highly combustible.
Beginning in 1993, Chinese scientists joined with Dutch and, later, German researchers to map China’s coal fires from satellites and aircraft, leading to the discovery of many new fires. “We know there are thousands, but it is too hard to count,” says Stefan Voigt, a geographer at the GermanAerospaceCenter near Munich. Extinguishing the fires would require heavy equipment to dig them out and smother them with soil—but China is still largely dependent on picks and shovels. “The Chinese recognize the problem,” says Voigt, “but sometimes they’ll say: ‘We don’t need more science. We need more bulldozers.’ ”
China has the most coal fires, but India, where largescale mining began more than a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of them. Rising surface temperatures, and toxic byproducts in groundwater and soil, have turned the densely populated Raniganj, Singareni and Jharia coal fields into vast wastelands. Subsidence has forced relocations of villages and roads—then re-relocations, as fire fronts advance. Rail lines give way; buildings disappear. In 1995, a Jharia riverbank was undermined by fire and crumbled; water rushed into underground mines, killing 78. Perhaps the most terrifying spectacle is the unquenched fire itself: many blazes smoldered quietly in old underground tunnels until recently, when modern strip pits exposed them to air. The revitalized flames erupted, engulfing the region in a haze of soot, carbon monoxide and compounds of sulfur and nitrogen. Burning coal also releases arsenic, fluorine and selenium. (Studies in China have suggested that the millions of people who use coal for cooking are being slowly poisoned by such elements.) Even so, workers continue to labor in this highly toxic environment.
And despite a 1990s World Bank study that outlined measures to combat the fires, little has been done to address the problem in either China or India. Prakash and other experts blame bureaucracy, corruption and the sheer overwhelming scale of the problem. “It’s just crazy,” she says.
Mining is not the only human intensifier of the fires. In Indonesia, huge tracts of land once covered by rain forest— and underlain by near-surface coal—is fast being logged, then cleared for agriculture. The preferred method: fire. The practice has ignited perhaps 3,000 coal fires since 1982, destroying houses, schools and mosques. Heavy smoke carpets much of Southeast Asia, blocking out sunlight and causing crop failures as well as reducing visibility and, in at least one case, triggering an oil-tanker collision. The smoke is also implicated in an epidemic of asthma. On a smaller scale, a related phenomenon has occurred in the United States; near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for example, an old coal mine has burned for the past 100 years. In the summer of 2002, the blaze ignited a forest fire that consumed 12,000 acres and 43 buildings. Putting it out cost $6.5 million. And the mine still burns.
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.
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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