The great Centralia mine fire: A natural laboratory for the study of coal fires
Published:October 06, 2006
Glenn B. Stracher, Melissa A. Nolter, Paul Schroeder, John McCormack, Donald R. Blake, Daniel H. Vice, 2006. "The great Centralia mine fire: A natural laboratory for the study of coal fires", Excursions in Geology and History: Field Trips in the Middle Atlantic States, Frank J. Pazzaglia
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The underground mining of anthracite coal in the Llewellyn Formation (Middle Pennsylvanian) of Centralia, Pennsylvania began in the mid-1800s and lasted until 1933, as production declined and oil replaced coal as the fuel of choice for heating homes and businesses. Strip mining in the 1950s proved to be an unsuccessful competitor against oil as well as gas, also used as a heating fuel. Consequently, major mining operations in Centralia ended in 1962, followed by the transfer of mineral rights to the borough of Centralia and eventually to the state of Pennsylvania.
The Centralia mine fire is a natural laboratory for studying coal fires from historical, scientific, and sociopolitical perspectives. The fire began in May 1962 when trash burning in an abandoned strip-mining cut used as an unregulated dump on the south limb of the Centralia syncline ignited the Buck Mountain coal bed. The fire then spread to mining tunnels beneath Centralia.
Residents of Centralia were unable to develop a strategic plan with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, the U.S. Bureau of Mines, and state agencies for controlling or extinguishing the Centralia mine fire. Several factors including the fire’s elusive nature, fractures that circulate air to burning anthracite in the subsurface, the inexperience of town officials in dealing with state and federal officials, and the expense involved led to this impasse.
Forty-two million dollars was appropriated by the U.S. Congress between 1985 and 1991 for Pennsylvania to relocate the remaining residents and businesses of Centralia because of the risk of subsidence and pollution associated with the fire. Although most of Centralia’s residents took advantage of the buyout, some did not. The few remaining homes that have not been demolished and the land occupied by the lingering residents now belong to Pennsylvania in accordance with the state’s declaration of eminent domain in 1992.
Centralia has become a wasteland with scorched woodlands engulfed in minefire emissions. Forty-five organic and inorganic compounds were identified including the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide and a number of toxins including carbon monoxide, benzene, toluene, and xylene.
New mineral occurrences discovered in association with Pennsylvania’s coal fires include hydrobasaluminite and voltaite in the assemblage alunogen, voltaite, and hydrobasaluminite discovered at an active gas vent near one of two currently active fire fronts in Centralia.
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Excursions in Geology and History: Field Trips in the Middle Atlantic States
The 2006 GSA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia provided a unique venue for the geologic and historic exploration of the Middle Atlantic States. Excursions into Geology and History is a collection of 13 papers and accompanying field guides that explores topics ranging from fossil plants of the Pennsylvania Anthracite basins, to the use of slate as a building stone, to the structural geology of Appalachian orogen transects, to coal basin mine fires, to the geological influences on the outcome of the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, America’s most hallowed ground. The book will prove to be a valuable educational resource for geologists and historians alike.