The Centralia Mine Fire: Failed Government in the Age of Deindustrialization

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Steam rising in Centralia

Centralia is a condemned mining town in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania.  There, you can see steam rising from the ground, sink holes, and abandoned buildings.  The coal beneath the town has been burning since at least 1962, and since about 1981 has been causing the timbers holding up the tunnels to collapse, heating up the ground, and releasing dangerous gases.

The fire was major news in Pennsylvania in the early 1980s when the state half-heartedly attempted to extinguish the fire.  In the end, they lost and the people of Centralia lost their homes.  The fire still burns.  Nearby Byrnesville was condemned as well.  The fire could burn for hundreds of years more.

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Old Langhorne Library (1680)

The Langhorne Council for the Arts hosted a lecture on Centralia by Stephen Perloff at the old Langhorne Library building on July 28, 2015.  Perloff spent several years documenting the struggles of the people of Centralia to save their town in the early 1980s.  His lecture, accompanied by photographs and recordings of interviews with residents, went beyond spectacle.  He put the tragedy in the context of environmental disaster, Pennsylvania’s deindustrialization, and ineffective government in the new era of deregulation and austerity.

According to Perloff, the state government paid a company to dig up the burning coals, the only way to extinguish an anthracite mine fire.  The company found that the fire had spread further than anyone had realized.  Finishing the job would require another $50,000.  The state refused and let the fire burn.  Infamously, Secretary of the Interior James Watt said, “There is no problem in Centralia.”  In the end, the Pennsylvania and US governments spent $45 million to relocate the citizens of Centralia and millions more to first fix and then relocate the fire-damaged Route 61, the main road through Centralia.  Perloff photographed a sign in Central saying, “Watt is the problem in Centralia.”

Perloff recommended Dave DeKok‘s Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire and The Town that Was (Trailer embedded below. Film available from Cinevolve Studios).

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