Just outside of the small town of Irwin, Pennsylvania there is a green and pleasant family farm where several lazy creeks wind their way eventually into larger ones and then rivers and eventually whose waters exit the Mississippi River at the Gulf of Mexico below New Orleans. One of those lazy little creeks comes out of an old and abandoned coal mine. It would be unremarkable except for the fact that the family who owns that Western Pennsylvanian farm is my own. It is ominous that the coal that Pennsylvania has in such abundance, and that has brought such wealth to those fortunate enough to control its mining or profit off of its use in railroads and electricity can be such a threat to the green and pleasant land of my birth, but so it is, and today in history is a sad and odd reminder of that threat.
Several hundred miles away from the small town of Irwin there is another small town that sat on an old coal mine, but its experiences were far worse than that of my own family farm. On May 27, 1962, a fire started in an underground coal mine in Centralia, Pennsylvania, when a fire started by some firefighters to help clear the local landfill of the small town of about 1,400 people entered a large complex of abandoned underground coal mines. Over the years the fire burned deeper and grew, eventually leading to massive sinkholes, immense heat just below the town, and actually shutting down the original path of PA Highway 61 in Columbia County. By 1992, then PA governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain over the whole town to seek to prevent the town’s remaining inhabitants from staying there, as most of the town had abandoned its fate and moved to nearby towns .
As is often the case in situations where the state government uses eminent domain, there are a variety of interpretations about why this was done, and lawsuits have drug out for decades as some of the town’s hardliners insist in living in the town despite the risks of CO poisoning from seepage up from the underground fire or sinkholes or other threats. One of the big reasons that the town’s few remaining residents stay and are determined to fight the attempt of the state to evict them from their homes is that the borough of Centralia holds the mineral rights to all of the coal that is underneath the town, and once there are not enough people there in the borough, the mineral rights will revert to the state. The residents of Centralia that remain firmly believe that the State of Pennsylvania is using the fire as an excuse to steal their mineral wealth for itself .
There really are few ways of resolving such an impasse, where a small fire became a massive problem due to accidents of geology as well as political fault lines. It seems clear that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is unwilling or unable to allay the concerns of the town’s remaining residents, and that the attempts of the state to coerce its residents to leave has led to a hardening of relations between the two camps. And the fire is not going away anytime soon–there is enough coal underneath Centralia to burn for about two hundred and fifty years, according to estimates. For now, Centralia remains a bizarre and mostly abandoned reminder of the confluence of political ambition, the tendency of human beings to stubbornly hold on to our homes, and of the unpredictable repercussions of accident and folly.