Centralia, like most towns and cities in Northeast Pennsylvania, was economically based around the mining of anthracite coal. In 1962, it was decided that an old strip mine site would be used as a landfill to serve the small town. A fire in the landfill unknowingly ignited an exposed coal vein that runs underneath the entire town and the surrounding area. This was not discovered until several years later, when people attending a church near the landfill began to complain about the foul smelling sulfurous odors rising from the ground. The proper authorities were brought in, and high levels of carbon monoxide confirmed that the coal vein was on fire.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the US Government made many costly attempts to bring the underground fire under control. Eventually, the toxic fumes and possibility of ground subsidence became life threatening, and most of the 1,100 residents were relocated by the federal government between 1985 and 1991 at a cost of over $42 million. The houses that they lived in were bought out and then torn down, and today all that remains of Centralia are about a dozen buildings, a network of empty streets and approximately 46 people. Part of Route 61 had to be closed and diverted in 1992 and 1993 because the cracks and warps in the pavement were so severe that it was impassable to any vehicles.
The coal vein continues to burn unchecked to this day. It, at present, covers 450 acres underground and shows no sign of stopping. The Commonwealth and the federal government continue to urge those remaining in the town to relocate. Several solutions have been proposed to stop the fire, including digging a 500-foot trench around the town. It is estimated that it would cost over half a billion dollars to extinguish the fire. It has been speculated that if the fire continues to burn, it could threaten the town of Ashland, less than two miles away.
The controversy has another, more sinister side to it, however. The people remaining in Centralia refuse to move because if they do, the government will buy up the rest of the land in Centralia, and then will profit from the mining of the valuable coal vein beneath Centralia. Right now, the coal is owned by the town, but if the government does succeed in forcing the remaining 46 people to relocate, it will then belong to them.
For a more detailed history, please visit www.centraliapa.com and www.offroaders.com/album/centralia/centralia.htm, which can be found on the links page.