Monday, February 25, 2008

"You're a Fire" Should Have Led to "You're Fired"

The book "The Day the Earth Caved In" by Joan Quigley examines a mine fire in Centralia, one of the tragic unintended results of the economic might of coal mining that helped build Pennsylvania. As the industry faded away into mostly bootleg and now sporadic operations, the mines remained. Inside many of these mines are long neglected fires with enough coal to keep the fires burning for years. These coal fires create tragedies when the fires and their toxins reach up through the surface. Unfortunately, in Centralia, these fires threaten an entire borough. This book describes the history of the Centralia mine fires, how its residents reacted, and how public officials mishandled the situation and let situations grow worse. Students of state government operations may wish to note the mistakes made by the Republican Thornburgh Administration to the Centralia difficulties.

The region around Centralia once boasted of 14 mine operations, each employing hundreds, with three United Mine Workers locals within Centralia. When the mines closed, local residents were left with the smell of sulfur from the inferno beneath them. Yet, with an average income half the national average and generations of proud residencies, many remained, despite the smell and the existence of ominous pipes used for venting the fire’s steam. Yet, when a boy fell into a hole in back yard and narrowly escaped death from the 160 degree heat and monoxide level that was thirty times above the government’s set exposure threshold, the residents realized the situation had grown far more serious. The fire was reaching them.

Fire does not know politics, yet the Centralia fire raged at a most politically inopportune time. It roared during the Reagan Republican Revolution, at a time when President Reagan and Governor Thornburgh were calling for cutbacks in government services spending and for relaxing environmental standards to encourage business growth. An expensive fire operation caused by failed corporate environmental failure was low on the government’s list of priorities and indeed may have been embarrassing to their goals.

This book provides an excellent history of the Centralia fire along with a description of public policy mistakes that hopefully we may learn from. The fire first surfaced at a landfill. The state required the borough government officials to daily dump clay onto the fire. Yet, the state failed to recognize that Centralia was a depressed community with only $2,300 in its General Fund. The borough officials could not afford to do what the state required of them, so, while they did apply clay when they could afford to, they did what many local officials in similar situations do. They pretended the problem didn’t exist or wasn’t really that important. Meanwhile, the fire spread. Finally, upon realizing the fire was burning out of control, borough officials called for help.

Under the law, the Federal government would pay for half the costs of extinguishing the fire and either the coal company or the state government paying the other half. The cost of putting out the Centralia fire was estimated to be about $30,000. Yet, the coal company, despite having $3.8 million in assets and $50,000 cash on hand, claimed they could not afford to pay their half. The state government ignored the problem. While no party was emerging to pay to control it, the fire continued raging and estimated costs of ending the fire escalated to $296,000 until parties agree to spend only a fraction of what was need, at $100,000. This efforts were “too little, too late” and those efforts failed. The problem continued growing until a later insufficient $2.8 million effort later failed. The fire was raging ahead of the efforts to put it out.

Federal and state government officials continued squabbling over who should pay to put out the Centralia fire, which continued enlarging into an estimated $9 million plus operation. While federal officials were declaring there was no threat from the fire, state officials were discovering carbon monoxide levels within Centralia at life threatening levels. A new federal law taxed the coal industry for mine reclamation efforts. Yet, Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt favored directing mine reclamation efforts more towards bituminous coal mines in Western states. The solution offered by the Interior Department for Centralia was they would spend a total of $1 million to assist Centralia residents to move away. Any other spending, they insisted, would have to come from the state government. The state government, though, appeared to pay little attention to the problem, a point on which many fault Governor Dick Thornburgh. Governor Thornburgh never once visited Centralia. Concerned Citizens (a group of Centralia residents) lobbied Congress to address the Central issue, and surprisingly, Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator John Heinz cancelled meeting with these advocates. Republican Senator Arlen Specter at least met with residents, yet seemed to agree with the Reagan Administration officials that relocating residents may be the only option. Secretary Watt authorized $11 million in Pennsylvania mine substance control, yet not one dollar was allocated for Centralia. The Federal government finally agreed to create a $850,000 study to determine the fire’s location, information most Centralia residents were able to provide for free and which still did nothing to solve the problem.

Finally, most of Centralia citizens decided to relocate. For relocation efforts, Congress provided $42 million. To this day, a fire that could have been put out for a few thousand dollars, has cost tens of millions of dollars, and continues burning to this day. This book provides an excellent description of the residents’ anger, fear, and bitterness amongst themselves and their conflicts over how to handle matters. This book shows the human element and the words of those directly affected by the Centralia fire. This is an excellent book of true human emotion alongside a valuable description of an important part of local history. Readers of Pennsylvania history, coal mining, government decision making will all greatly appreciate this book, as well as readers who want to know what it feels like to live with a continuous fire burning underneath your home.