Saturday, May 9, 2009


I like to check in with Google Sightseeing once in a while and when I stopped by the other day, I found a feature on Love Canal, a neighborhood in western New York. In 1978, the residents there discovered the reason for the 56% birth defects rate in their families: their neighborhood, their parks, their children's school were all built on top of 21,000 tons of buried chemical waste. The local school board had approved the purchase of the land for the school knowing its history (and even leaned on the Hooker Chemical Company -- now part of Occidental Petroleum -- to get them to sell the site).

By 1980, the federal government stepped in and the neighborhood was abandoned. Eight hundred families were relocated, the school was demolished and the EPA began an attempt at cleanup. Most of the homes have since been demolished -- you can see the vacant lots in the photos at the Google Sightseeing link.

This all got me to thinking about another community that was destroyed by a combination of the carelessness of politicians and the hazards abandoned by corporate fat cats. In this case, the town sat above an abandoned coal mine, which caught fire in 1961 and has been burning ever since. It is estimated that there is enough coal in the seam to keep the fire burning for another couple of hundred years. Gases vent up into town through the basements of homes and businesses, poisoning and heating the air and buildings.

I visited Centralia, PA around 1983, on a lab field trip for an Environmental Science class I was taking in college. We drove up from Carlisle for the afternoon. I remember putting my hand on the side of building and feeling the heat, hearing stories from residents about back yard swimming pools being too hot to swim in or the toxic air in their basements, and walking through a field where flat rocks could have been used for frying eggs.

At the time of my visit, most of the people and all of the homes were still there. It wasn't until 1979 that the residents became aware of how much of a problem the mine fire was going to be, and then no one really paid attention to Centralia's cries for help until a 12-year-old boy was sucked into a hole that suddenly appeared when part of his back yard caved in two years later. Congress finally got involved in 1984, financing a relocation program, and most of the residents left shortly thereafter.

I found Centralia on Google Maps this morning and it looks much like Love Canal. Most of the homes are gone now, but streets serve to remind us of what used to be there.


A Free Man said...

Wow, that's a poignant image and a testament to corporate irresponsibility.

Keera said...

Fascinating! I have never heard of Centralia. But after watching the video you linked to, I have one beef with your choice of tags: Centralia is not the result of bad business practices, only of bad luck. The fire started by accident and circumstances (abandoned mine shafts) have fed it enough air to keep it going.

It's odd seeing the infrastructure of an abandoned community. I was quite struck by one photo from Los Angeles: A whole community was planned, roads put in and paved, and then the whole project came to a screeching halt because the new airport was to be put in next door. The planes take off over perfect streets with no homes on them.

alice said...

Unsecured, abandoned coal mines are very bad business. One of the reasons coal is so cheap is because the coal companies rape the land then then move on, without trying to return the areas they've exploited to anything resembling their prior condition -- or even merely some kind of safe condition. Look at what they're doing to our mountains and valleys here in the Appalachians.

That image you link to is very eerie. I wonder how far the project got -- were any utilities run? I also wonder how much of the underground infrastructure was removed at Love Canal and Centralia (and other abandoned communities)...

peanut said...

at the time of the fire the city wasn't falling. coal was still something to be had, the local fire house burned garbage yearly, as they did all over the country at the time, they happened to burn in an old coal pit, nothing new for an area of coal, there happened to be a coal line underneath the pit and thats how it started. it took years for the people to move and the government to get involved. the local informants as well as on a federal level tried to put it out. years were spent, not to mention millions of dollars to put it out with no prevail. it is what it is.

B said...

Centralia was actually the basis for the city of Silent Hill in the movie of the same name. I never thought a city like that could actually exist. :)

Also, check out Darvaz. Kind of a similar concept.

alice said...

Wow, B... those are incredible images of Darvaz! Thanks for the link!