A trip to Centralia
By MITCHELL SOMMERS
What brought me to take the hour-and-a-half drive from my home to the most famous ghost town in Pennsylvania, and maybe America, was not the past, but the future. But to explain why, let’s talk about the past first.
What happened to the borough of Centralia is a ramped up, far more brutal version of what happened to plenty of towns in Northeast Pennsylvania that suffered when the coal industry came, then went. Unlike Centralia, those towns are still there. They limp along as best they can with the jobs gone, the landscape ruined, and the occasional bit of mine subsidence hopefully not turning up on your front porch.
Centralia’s problems were deeper. Literally. Even now, 49 years after it started, nobody is quite sure how the underground fire that has reduced its population from over two thousand to no more than a dozen actually started, but the most widely accepted theory is that someone—ironically enough, the fire company—burned trash in the pit of an abandoned coal mine. That ignited a vein of coal that was underground, but very close to the surface. The fire company didn’t properly extinguish the fire. And it slowly spread.
Wherever there was coal, the fire found it. And the fire found the town directly above it, and it pretty much didn’t care. For a while it was kind of cool—nobody had to shovel snow, and tomatoes grew in the middle of winter. But it stopped being quirky when carbon monoxide started showing up in people’s homes and a 12-year-old boy nearly died in 1981 from a cave-in.
At the time the town started burning, it would have probably taken about $50,000.00 to stop the fire, but local officials didn’t have the money, so it burned away. Finally, in the 80’s, Congress appropriated $42 million to condemn and relocate everyone in the entire town. Slowly that’s been happening. Only a handful of people are left, including the mayor, who still shows up with borough council members at a borough hall in which the “R” in Centralia and both “A’s” in Pennsylvania are missing.
To visit Centralia today is to visit intentional ruins. The streets are still there, big and wide, and narrow and residential, lying there in the most prosaic grid pattern everyone’s seen in every small town and big city anywhere. Stop signs still sit at intersections with no structures on any corner. Fire hydrants are still here, oblivious to the fact that they are useless to contain the fire that will likely burn for another 250 years or so. You can still easily demarcate where the houses were; there hasn’t been enough overgrowth yet to obliterate the sense of where the lots were. You have driveways, but no house foundations.
Then there’s the gas, rising above the ground. It’s not everywhere, but it’s not hard to find. A reminder, as if you needed one.
But we do. We need a reminder of what happens when you tear stuff out of the land without any thought to what happens both in the during and after stages of that, because Pennsylvania’s about to do it again, thanks to the Marcellus Formation Shale, or Marcellus Shale for short.
Marcellus Shale (which is not a character in Pulp Fiction) is a formation of rock stretching from West Virginia , through Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and on through to New York State. The Pennsylvania part covers all of Western and much of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Below that rock is trapped natural gas. Lots and lots of natural gas. This gas wasn’t terribly commercially viable to drill for at one point, but it is now. It’s obtained by a process called Hydraulic Fracturing, or “fracking” . Fracking works by shoving lots of water, sand, and toxic chemical things like cadmium and mercury into the wells. The idea is that all that injected stuff busts the shale apart, releasing the trapped gas. Fracking is also done in combination with another process called directional drilling, which has its own set of issues.
Fracking is currently under a moratorium in New York State. It is, however, going along quite happily and unimpeded in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s new governor, Tom Corbett, has no intention of following New York’s example. And, since he got a ton of money—$875,000.00—from oil and gas concerns, there’s no reason to think he would. In fact, the only moratorium we did have in Pennsylvania, blocking drilling on state lands, Corbett just rescinded.
Which brings me to Dimock, Pennsylvania. Marcellus Shale drilling and fracking is a big deal in Dimock. And so are the results. Things like being able to light your water on fire, for example. Things like having your kids get dizzy and sick taking a shower because the water is so wretchedly awful.
Which brings me back to Centralia. And the past. And the future. Because if you don’t think that there will be other Centralias in the future, you’re not paying attention. Or, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to get politicians to pay attention when their reelection depends on them not paying attention.
We can ignore these things. Or not. But they won’t ignore us.