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Fire in the Hole

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Author Topic: Fire in the Hole  (Read 154 times)
Lisa Wolfe
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« on: June 18, 2009, 11:59:12 pm »

Remarkably enough, nobody’s doing a thing about it. The federal and state governments gave up trying to extinguish the fire in the 1980s. “Pennsylvania didn’t have enough money in the bank to do the job,” says Steve Jones, a geologist with the state’s Office of Surface Mining. “If you aren’t going to put it out, what can you do? Move the people.”Nearly all 1,100 residents left after they were offered federally funded compensation for their properties. Their abandoned houses were leveled. Today Centralia exists only as an eerie grid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of a picket fence here, a chair spindle there—plus Lokitis and 11 others who refused to leave, the occupants of a dozen scattered structures. Lokitis, 35, lives alone in the house he inherited from “Pop”—his grandfather, a coal miner, as was Pop’s father before him. For fans of the macabre, lured by a sign warning of DANGER from asphyxiation or being swallowed into the ground, Centralia has become a tourist destination. For Lokitis, it is home.

Across the globe, thousands of coal fires are burning. Nearly impossible to reach and extinguish once they get started, the underground blazes threaten towns and roads, poison the air and soil and, some say, worsen global warming. The menace is growing: mines open coal beds to oxygen; human-induced fires or spontaneous combustion provides the spark. The United States, with the world’s largest coal reserves, harbors hundreds of blazes from Alaska to Alabama. Pennsylvania, the worst-afflicted state, has at least 38—an insignificant number compared with China (see sidebar, “Flaming Dragon,” p. 58) and India, where poverty, old unregulated mining practices and runaway development have created waves of Centralias. “It’s a worldwide catastrophe,” says geologist Anupma Prakash of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
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