Centralia Mine Fire

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Diagram used in recent news articles depicting size of fire

The Centralia Mine Fire began in 1962, apparently the result of a poor decision to illegally burn a former strip-mine-turned-landfill. What started as a small and manageable mine fire quickly ballooned into an uncontrollable monster. Along with this came division of the community and constant infighting of government agencies, ultimately leading to the relocation of all residents and essentially the destruction of the entire town just 21 years later.


Contents

Origin of the Fire

In 1962, a newly officialized converted strip mine landfill. Holes in the strip mine were believed to have been filled with an incombustible material. Fire is commonly believed to have started 27 May 1962 in the landfill during an act of tidying it up for Memorial Day on the 30th by using an illegal practice of trash burning. Fire reappeared 29 May 1962 and again in June. It was quickly realized to have spread into the mines with discovery of a large unpatched hole (15ft wide, several feet high) which led into old mines. While it would have been fairly cheap to excavate and extinguish at this time (a quoted $175 price), the money would have to come through the proper government channels, and this delay only allowed the fire to grow.

The First Attempt -- Trenching and Flushing (1962)

Due to the Council refusing to admit their error, they were at the mercy of state funds and agencies. On 6 August 1962, the state declares it will handle the project, but requires it to go out for bids. Carbon Monoxide detected in Centralia area mines forced them to close 10 August due to the danger. 22 August Bridy, Inc. of Atlas, PA is awarded the contract for around $20,000.

The fire was discovered to run on a downhill vein, meaning that attempts to dig it out became expoentially expensive. Initial estimate was to dig out 24,000 cubic yards of earth to trench the fire, money ran out on 29 October with 58,580 cubic yards and had ultimately little effect on the fire.

On 23 October 1962, a flushing project was suggested and approved. 1 November a bid of $28,400 was approved for K&H Excavating of Mt. Carmel, PA. However, insufficient water supply, a bitter winter causing the flushing machine to freeze, and inability to keep up with the fire's spread again due to lack of money ensured failure. The project was ultimately terminated 15 March 1963 and totaled $42,420. The firm believed another $10 - $12 thousand would have been enough to stop the fire.

Trench Two (1963)

On 11 April 1963, Deputy Secretary of Mines Gordan Smith visits Centralia and orders a complete engineering study. By 1 July, he had a three-option proposal ready. Plan A would be to completely trench the fire and backfill it with incombustible material, at an estimated cost of $277,490. Plan B would be to partially trench the fire and finish it with a flush barrier at a cost of $151,714. Plan C was a better funded version of the K&H flushing project, at a cost of $82,300. However, a 25% budget cut and a lack of priority of the Centralia Mine Fire resulted in a complete rejection of the proposal. On 9 July 1963 Gordan Smith manages to secure a mere $40,000 and rehire Bridy, Inc. to dig another trench for $36,225. On 13 August 1963, after initially monitoring the work, Gordan Smith abandons Centralia to assist in another emergency 15 miles away and does not return. The trench was ultimately halted in October when it was found that the fire existed on both sides of the trench, i.e. it had already crossed the barrier they were trying to form.

Trench Three (1965-1967)

In May 1965, John Buch of the U.S. Bereau of Mines Schuylkill Haven field office wrote "Centralia Mine Fire Control Project: History and Recommendations for Control." This was a two phase plan to supposedly forever protect the village of Centralia from the fire. Phase I was to backfill the old landfill, believed at the time to be providing oxygen, and perform exploratory drilling to discover the boundaries of the fire. Phase II would be a massive 2500 ft long trench, 100-200 feet deep. The total cost was estimated at $2,525,000, with $300,000 being dedicated to Phase I. The project was approved June 8, but obtaining property releases for potentially effected properties delayed the start until March of next year. Even then, concern over the first delay caused a further delay until was re-approved June 8, and then bids were required for Phase I.

19 August 1966, the winning bid for Phase I of project is Empire Contracting Company of Old Forge at cost of $281,215; a $45,000 engineering fee pushed this over the $300,000 allocation, requiring an amended contract that was signed 12 September 1966. The water supply of Centralia was insufficient for flushing, but a mine drainage supply was more than adequate, with the exception that the water quality was poor and highly acidic. 8 months were required to build a pump and a mile long pipeline that could withstand the acidic factor of the water. Exploratory drilling had already commenced in November but was halted due to the current inability to create a flush barrier. Drilling resumed 8 May 1967, which led to the unfortunate discovery that the fire had already spread farther north than previously anticipated, close to Centralia homes. Another problem was much larger flushing than previously estimated. This was quickly leading to escalating cost of the project and would require more money or to reduce the scope. No more money was provided, and as such the trench plan was altered to only be a half circle, sparing Centralia but allowing the fire to burn southward, but drilling revealed the fire had a depth as low as 225 feet in some areas and would require $4.5 million, much more than the original estimated $2 million. With the property in the area estimated to be valued at only $500,000, the trench concept was abandoned, according to a report written by Thomas B. Flynn, Bureau of Mines Chief of the Division of Environment in 1978.

Fly Ash Barrier (1969)

Fly ash, a product of burned coal, was discovered to be a superior fire control device; it was very fine compared to flush, meaning it could better and more tightly fill crevices, and when it got wet, like from groundwater, it became almost as solid as rock. A plan is set to form a fly ash barrier near Centralia to protect homes was approved on 3 April 1969. The contract to form this barrier was given to Stearns Service Corporation of Nanticoke at a cost of $518,840, beginning work on May 5. This project sealed several old mine openings near some houses, which had previously been venting gas from the fire, and is believed to have forced mine gases into the homes. Homes in the neighborhood around South Street began to experience effects of carbon monoxide in the air inside their houses, with various ailments of dizziness, nausea, headaches, and lethargy that would vanish upon leaving the home. On May 22, some residents have made it apparent they do not believe in the fly ash barrier, and attest that a trench must be dug; this order is rejected. On May 26, Stearns is ordered to work on the fly ash barrier near three abandoned Centralia homes where the mine fire gas has become unbearable. County commissioners offered to pay for lodging of the duration of 10 days to 2 weeks for the displaced residents until gases cleared their homes.

Trench Four (1969)

A concerned citizens group led by Helen Womer convinced congressman Daniel Flood on 13 June to get a small trench dug 240 ft long, 140 ft wide, and 50 ft deep, moving 48,000 cubic feet of earth at a cost of $82,250. This would lead into the fly ash barrier at its northern end. Digging of the trench continued into the fall which uncovered the actual fire, which lit up red pillars of coal at night. With the fire visible, this would be the optimum time to create a trench to stop the fire once and for all. Bureau engineer John Rosella pleaded to Charles Keubler of the Bureau of Mines for more money, knowing they had the fire if they could continue digging it out, but was denied. Having already moved 60,000 cubic feet of earth, 12,000 more than was authorized, Washington ordered it backfilled in October of 1969.

Fly Ash Barrier Continued (1972-1977)

In the spring of 1972, the first breech of the fly ash barrier had been detected outside of town. An emergency fund was requested to repair the breech, approved in February of 1973, providing an additional $250,000, $50,000 of which is to drill 53 monitoring holes. On 15 February 1974, the fly ash barrier is completed with praises from congressman Flood. With the completion of the project, which ultimately sacrificed the three main affected houses, the fire became mostly forgotten by the residents. However a mine inspector in 1975 had already determined that the fire had apparently breached the fly ash barrier. John Rosella believes the fly ash had settled allowing gases to escape.

On 1 November 1976, journalist David DeKok, who would later become a major reporter on the Centralia Mine Fire, is asked to fill in for another reporter who usually covers Centralia Council meetings. Tony Gaughan stood up and complained of a fatal level of gas exiting from bore holes near his house, fearing the gas may one night enter his house and kill him and his wife. Despite these fears, the only action the Bureau of Mines was willing to take was to reinforce the fly ash barrier, when bureaucracy made it convenient. The project to reinforce the barrier was finally approved 12 April 1977. Phase I would be to drill holes to determine where the old barrier was leaking, and Phase II would be to execute repairs as needed.

In June 1977, preliminary drilling reveals that the areas lacking fly ash prove the barrier was never intact and could have allowed the fire to spread further. In September, the lowest bid for the project was at $429,550, above a $385,000 allocation, requiring a new trip through bureaucracy, finally being approved in February 1978. Work finally begins in May for the fly ash barrier reinforcement. This actually began to show results, with bore holes no longer spewing steam and underground temperatures dropping, although citizens were still not convinced and believed an extension of the 1969 trench was in order. A town meeting was held on June 13 to discuss this matter, though the Bureau insisted on the effectiveness of fly ash and claimed no funding was available for a trench.

Trench Plan Attempt (1977)

On 27 July 1977, residents repeated their demand for a trench and this time also asked for precise boundaries of the fire, which could not be provided. Robert Oberman of the Department of Environmental Resources begged Charles Keubler to consider three potential options for control -- a trench, grouting (sophisticated form of flushing), or subsidizing a commercial strip mining operation to remove coal and isolate the fire. On August 13, infrared images providing scope of the fire initiate approval for an extension of the 1969 trench, 415 feet long to the center of Poplar Street, 155 ft wide and 140 ft deep. A town meeting was held on September 7 to discuss the trench extension, claiming 25 homes and the SS Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church would have to be razed, flaring tempers of some of the citizens. Five families swore they would never leave, among them Helen Womer and the Gaughans. On the contrary, at a meeting held September 9, five families felt that they must be relocated, among them the becoming leader of the movement, Joan Girolami. $1 million in funding for buying the 25 properties and church was not easily obtainable.

On a meeting October 5, the fire was admitted by officials to be under "four or five" houses on East Park St. James Paone, Chief Deputy of Mine Fire Projects for the Bureau, laid out seven options for Centralia Council to consider:
1) Set aside funds for additional fly ash when leaks developed
2) Pump more fly ash now followed by a hydraulic slurry
3) Inject some kind of other incombustible material
4) Add cement grouting to the current barrier
5) The trench already proposed
6) A larger trench at $3.5 million
7) A huge trench at $9-10 million which would destroy 78 homes; also the only option to carry a guarantee by the Bureau, though they currently had no way to fund it

Around November 2, Council members ultimately chose to go with the trench already proposed, simply because it seemed desperately needed and was the only apparently immediately doable task. This upset Helen Womer and other anti-relocation families. The funding for purchase of properties and relocation of the families was still not ironed out.

Super Flush Barrier, the closing of the Coddington Gas Station (1977)

Paone responded on 19 December 1977 that a better and more sure idea would be a $6 million "super flush barrier", guaranteed to fill all of the void where the fire burned or would burn, and that the fire should burn out due to lack of air in 1-2 years after the completion of the 4-5 year project, and no properties would need to be acquired. $464,000 had been obtained the trench project and would be applied towards this project instead. On December 21, this new plan was approved, though the new U.S. Office of Surface Mining, which had special funding for abandoned mine lands, would need to contribute $5.5 million of the funding. Ten in-house carbon monoxide readers are now being provided for families in the affected area.

In January 1979, the fly ash barrier settled again, this time allowing carbon monoxide gas to begin entering several more homes. The fire had also began to reach into the nearby small village of Byrnesville. An abandoned strip mine in Byrnesville was discovered spewing steam from evaporating underground water. There was also steam found billowing out from the shoulder of Rt 61. On November 21, John Coddington notices plume of smoke between his gas station and the Lamb family household. A test that day showed only a 66 degree temperature and no carbon monoxide, but the next day it had jumped to 122 degrees, prompting fear that the fire may reach the underground fuel storage tanks at Coddington's station as well as a natural gas pipeline which ran under Locust Ave. On December 7, after noticing a steady increase in the temperature of the gasoline, Coddington's station was closed for safety reasons and the gas removed.

On 4 January 1980, in response to the forced closure of Coddington's station, another town meeting is held declaring that something would definitively be done about the mine fire, though a study would need to be performed that would not be completed until September. But the promise was that whatever the recommended course of action based on the study would "definitely" be put into action. The current Pennsylvania Governor Thornburg administration was not interested in providing any assistance. In February, a vent was installed that attempted to vent off gas and heat from the Coddington building; John Coddington even considered reopening his gas station at first. However it was proven to be ineffective by March.

Relocation One (1980)

On 18 April 1980, a $225,000 relocation plan is approved to finally buy 8 houses (7 families, including father of the future Centralia fighter with the same name, John Lokitis) along East Park Street affected by the fly ash barrier project. On April 30, extremely poor air quality found in three households -- including the Lamb and Coddington households -- enacted an emergency situation. Fly ash and other flush material was to be injected underneath the houses in theory to block the gases from entering. While the flushing only seemed to be increasing the amount of gas in the household by pushing it out of the ground, it was also found to be leaking out of a drainage shaft in June and thus ended this attempt.

On June 3, a meeting is held in Centralia to reassure the public that work is being done on the mine fire problem. The next day a carbon monoxide alarm installed at St. Ignatius Elementary sounds for 10 minutes until it is unplugged. By September only two families selected to be relocated had left Centralia. While most were due to delays, John Lokitis did not believe he was in any danger and decided to remain where he was. On September 29, the Bureau releases 650 copies of a report about the mine fire, which also details plans and estimated costs of attack.

There were 4 variations of excavation plans, ranging from "total excavation" at $84 million, to "cut off trenches" ranging from $22.1 to $42 million. 109 - 136 homes would have to be razed and this would result in the devastation of southeast Centralia to save the village. Life for remaining citizens would not be pleasant with the blasting work and the intense sulfuric scent. There was another idea of flooding the old mines, but fear of water bursting forth and flooding out parts of Centralia made it considered far too risky. Flushing came up again, as it always seemed an ideal solution, but had failed so many times in Centralia due to known issues. Another idea was to perform underground mining to manually create a barrier, but this was considered too dangerous for the miners. Another thought was "surface sealing", where all openings into the mine were sealed to prevent air getting to the fire, but this was considered impractical given erosion or subsidence would soon open a new airway. Finally, there was the thought of relocating the entire communities of Centralia and Byrnesville and just letting the fire burn out; given the risk to public health and safety, this would require the complete and total removal of all structures.

The Todd Domboski Incident (1981)

On 14 February 1981, a 12 year old named Todd Domboski was running to check out the presence of some government figures coming out of another resident's house. Near where his 16 year old cousin Eric Wolfgang was working on a motorbike, Todd noticed a wisp of smoke near a tree and went over to investigate it. Without warning, the ground collapsed underneath his feet. A huge amount of smoke and mine fire gas rushed out of the hole. Todd was three feet below the surface and unable to see through the steam, but was able to grab onto a root of the tree. Eric heard his cries and was able to pull him to safety, pushing him into his grandmother's house. Todd was told to tell the government men (who turned out to be an assortment of important figures including state representatives and a senator) what had happened. They immediately called for Governor Thornburg while the small Centralia police force ordered people away for safety and fenced off the hole. Todd was taken to a hospital, but fortunately had not inhaled a fatal amount of carbon monoxide. However a metering device used on the gas exiting the hole suggested that Todd would have asphyxiated had he been in there for a few minutes.

Relocation Two (1981)

John Coddington was overcome by the mine fire gases in his home on March 19, leading to publicity that stated that "someone would die" before help with the mine fire was provided. Governor Thornburg arrived March 31, to discuss the voluntary relocation of Centralia residents. The Governor also visited with John Coddington and Rachel Lamb, two victims of mine fire gases. David Lamb provided the governor with 1500 signatures from residents that declare a need for the government to help with the mine fire problem. On March 19, it was announced that 30 families would be relocated in a 16 acre area defined by the Office of Surface Mining. On April 20, the Interior Department announced that there would be no further action on the mine fire itself; it would be left to burn.

On May 19, an official referendum was voted on by citizens of Centralia and Byrnesville about whether they wanted to be relocated. The Concerned Citizens group went door to door to encourage a "yes" vote. The final vote was an overwhelming "yes" at 434 - 204. Although the referendum itself was not a declaration of action, it showed that Centralia had finally made up its mind how it wanted to treat the mine fire. June 19 saw protests when the first seven families eligible for relocation encountered several issues -- there was to be a 20% penalty taken from their property value, they only had 10 days to choose to accept/reject the offer, and they could receive "up to" $15,000 in assistance, but they would not know immediately how much they qualified for. Even though this was eventually extended to 30 and 40 days, this was still not enough time to truly plan.

Beginning of the End (1981-1982)

On October 19, five members of Concerned Citizens visited with officials to demand in person that something be done for Centralia. Centralia residents would also appear on ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel. On December 11, President Reagan signed a bill appropriating $850,000 for an exploratory drilling project in Centralia. On May 1982, it is discovered that gas is beginning to be found in sink / bathroom drains, indicating the mine fire is beginning to affect the Centralia sewer system.

On 19 July 1982, a lawsuit was proposed against the Office of Surface Mining for failing to follow their own policy of "reclaiming land", which means they should have properly extinguished the mine fire after relocating 68 residents. The lawsuit as well as the Concerned Citizens group was denounced on July 23, leading to a large scale division among the community. A $30,000 grant proposed to the Concerned Citizens group led to threats on the individual members of the groups.

On October 4, OSM engineer Robert Brennan reveals that the mine fire has breeched the fly ash barrier and is moving towards several new targets in Centralia, Byrnesville, and Route 61. A bore hole 50 feet from SS Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church showed a temperature of 580 degrees, recommending a gas alarm in the church basement. The fire was quickly advancing to Byrnesville on an 800 foot front, which was also heading to Route 61. The next day, Brennan received a lot of heat for revealing this disasterous news, and it was suggested to him that he "shade" what he said to reporters, but he did not feel this was just. The most chaotic meeting of Centralia council occurred thereafter on November 1, with 3 1/2 hours of screaming and name-calling.

On 8 January 1983, a crack opens across southbound Route 61, and the temperature beneath the highway was 853 degrees. Two days later, heavy rains create a thick cloud of steam that automotive headlights cannot penetrate, closing the highway for five months.

Unity Day (1983)

As part of the work of the newly created United Centralia Area Mine Fire Task Force, Helen Womer declared Unity Day on 6 March 1983. Unity Day would bring the whole community together, and the overcast weather only promised that there would be plenty of steam for news reporters. The point of Unity Day was to give Centralia a lot of media attention, in hopes to facilitate mass action being taken. Activities including an interfaith service at St. Ignatius church, followed by a meeting at the municipal building. The mayor gave a speech telling the crowd about how this town that many are attached to by three or four generations was worth saving just as much as a city of a million people. "... to set Centralia and Byrnesville free in '83." 18,636 signatures were collected for a petition to be sent directly to the White House. Ultimately the spirit of Unity Day was temporary; the petition remained collecting dust in a display case, sitting in a shop window along Locust Ave. It had never been sent to the White House, most likely because of the fear it might have led to relocation or something else undesirable.

On 12 July 1983, a report prepared by GAI Incorporated, a Pittsburgh area geotechnical engineering firm, reported all manner of bad news about the Centralia fire. Many residents who assumed they were "safe" because of living in a certain area was proven wrong due to evidence of the mine fire stretching far beyond what anyone thought might have been able to enclose it. The fire was predicted to ultimately expand from its current 195 acres to a possible 3700 acre size over time. This would envelope Centralia, Byrnesville, and an eight-house hamlet of Germantown between Centralia and Ashland. Ashland, Big Mine Run, Girardville, Connerton, Lost Creek, and Raven Run were just out of the reach of the mine fire estimate, but it was not definitively determined that they could not someday be reached as well.

Again, a trench was proposed as a recommended solution, but this time the trench was to be 3700 feet long and 450 feet at its deepest point. This would destroy half of the community it was trying to save, not to mention be massively expensive. This main trench was estimated at $62 million. Additional trenches would be required to actually contain the fire, with a second trench one mile east of Centralia, a third one west of Byrnesville, and a fourth to the south. The total estimated cost was between $105-$115 million. This was considered a gross waste of funds. Total excavation of the fire would cost an impossible $660 million. A flushing project ran at $32 million, but had been discredited by so many prior failures. A "least cost" suggestion of a $62 million trench through Centralia and a $2.5 million flushing project in Byrnesville (which was believed to work in that area), was proposed. The major problem even if a trench were approved would be the degraded quality of life for the remaining residents while the work was being performed.

The briefing suggested that it would be a vote of the community if they would opt for relocation. This renewed the old divisive nature of the community, splitting those who want relocation from those who did not. Byrnesville distrusted Centralia, and individually handed a petition signed by 27 of 28 property owners to go ahead with flushing, even though it meant sparing the village to be surrounded by a burning wasteland. Those that absolutely hated the idea of location formed the Residents to Save the Borough of Centralia. Helen Womer announced some 412 signatures to do nothing about the fire that would not leave Centralia intact.

The Final Vote (1983)

On 11 August 1983, Centralians vote on whether to save the town or relocate. Byrnesville residents were excluded due to signing a private flushing agreement. At 8:45PM, it was announced that relocation had won -- the vote was 345 votes to 200 in favor, which reflected a similar ratio to the 1981 referendum. Governor Thornburg announced a $50 million package to relocate the residents of Centralia. Thornburg stated that the relocation would be voluntary. Eventually it was determined that nothing would actually be done about the fire itself. Byrnesville was to be relocated as well, despite their profession for flushing; officials did not believe that it would work. Centralia Homeowners Association was formed to help get the best deal for relocating property owners in Centralia. The group was made of up of members from previous groups as well as formerly unaffiliated folks, in total about 90 families.

On 18 November 1983, Congress passed the bill that included Centralia's relocation 226 to 186, authorizing $42 million for Centralia as well as a specific rule that they could not penalize the property value due to the mine fire. Homeowners were this time given a year to consider a deal made on their property, instead of the initial 10 days given to the 1981 relocations. Also they had the option of selling their house and then renting it back until they secured new housing. Departing homeowners were allowed to salvage anything they wanted, and many took siding, cabinets, windows, etc.


See Also: Centralia Timeline, Centralia After Relocation

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