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As coal still burns under Centralia, trash piles up above

In 1962, an anthracite seam beneath Centralia caught fire, eventually chasing out nearly all of the residents. So it's easy to drive in, dump trash, tires, refrigerators and mounds of diapers, and take off.

Trash dumped in the town of Centralia, Columbia County. Coal mines beneath the town caught fire in 1962 and still burn today.
Trash dumped in the town of Centralia, Columbia County. Coal mines beneath the town caught fire in 1962 and still burn today.Read moreJason Nark

CENTRALIA, Pa. — The morning crew pulled into this burning ghost town just before 9 on Saturday and grabbed gear that the miners of old never took down with them.

There were rakes instead of pickaxes, industrial-size trash bags, safety-orange vests, and gloves in case any of the volunteers were brave enough to pick up the dirty diapers piled up by the hundreds just off Paxton Street.

A taco truck was coming around noon to feed all the workers, but the dumpster got filled with trash long before then.

"Ignore the graffiti if you can, especially for the kids," said Robert Hughes, executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR). "Parents, you might have to do some explaining to the kids about the graffiti. You know, the birds and the bees maybe."

It's been 55 years since an anthracite seam beneath Centralia, Columbia County, caught fire and kept burning. In the decades that followed, the state, along with federal agencies, spent millions trying to put it out, and when that failed, they focused their money on buying out residents through eminent domain. The population dropped from more than 1,000 in 1980 to fewer than 100 a decade later.

Seven homeowners who fought the condemnation in federal court were allowed to stay. They are forbidden from selling or passing their property down to relatives. Someday, no one will live in Centralia. The zip code is already gone.

Many people still visit Centralia, though, slowly driving past the sidewalks overgrown with brush and the chain-link fences that now enclose trees instead of houses. On this warm and sunny Saturday, there's no evidence of the fire, no black smoke to be seen or smelled in the hills by the cemeteries. Bees and box elder bugs were everywhere, along with dozens of "No Trespassing" and "No Dumping" signs. Motorists on their way to Mount Carmel or Bloomsburg slowed down by the old municipal building, probably shocked to see so many people milling around.

Sightseers and photographers can't resist Centralia's "Grafitti Highway," the former Route 61 that went through town and has been closed to traffic for 20 years. Owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the highway is potentially dangerous because of the fire beneath it. "There's large voids under the ground and they can give way with no warning," said State Police Cpl. Corey Wetzel of the Bloomsburg barracks.

Still, the graffiti-covered road surface bears witness to furtive visitors, who are regularly cited by the state police for trespassing.

Centralia's streets also make it easy to drive in, dump trash and bigger items, and take off. Hughes said he first noticed the dumping about 20 years ago, and it has only gotten worse as more houses have been built in the surrounding areas. Contractors often discard building materials; people who don't want to pay fees to trash tires, refrigerators and televisions come into Centralia at night and toss them from trucks.

There are spray-paint cans because many of the walls and sidewalks are covered in neon names and curses, or teenage devotions of love inside crudely painted hearts.

That's why 50 people, including children, joined EPCAMR, a nonprofit that helps reclaim old mining land, to fan out into the hills and brush on Saturday, their pockets stuffed with trash bags.

"Last year we found some kittens, about five, so don't be surprised," Hughes told them. "There's three cat carriers just in case."

Most of the volunteers were former residents and relatives, many of them members of a Facebook page about Centralia. Some belonged to a Jeep off-road club. Students from an environmental science class at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre got dropped off, too.

One couple who race drag cars on weekends drove two hours from Parsippany, N.J., to help clean. "I used to drive around and take a lot of pictures. It used to look a lot nicer, if you can believe that," said Jim Young, 47. "I just did a lot of research and watched a lot of videos, and I just totally got into the story of the town and what these people went through."

During the boom times of the anthracite coal industry in the early part of the 20th century, Centralia had nearly 2,500 residents. Anthracite coal kept 330,000 miners busy during the height of the state's coal empire in 1918; today, about 1,000 make their living from it. Pennsylvania's bituminous coal industry, west of the Susquehanna River, is larger.

There are still active anthracite mines near Centralia, where only a few houses remain, neat and plain with manicured lawns and Halloween decorations. Those residents have repeatedly declined to talk to reporters in recent years and did not respond to requests for comment. Hughes said they've long grown tired of talking about it.

One man walked a dog on an empty street toward one of the homes, nodding at the volunteers as he passed.

Bags filled quickly with the easy trash, the typical blend of fast-food wrappers and plastic bottles, but used tires, some new and others with trees growing through them, were also scattered about by the dozens. In a clearing off a rocky trail, by the mounds of diapers, a few old televisions had been blasted to pieces with shotguns.

"I used to help organize the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy clean-ups, and every year it's 100 tires, three full dumpsters," said Bob Kahley, a recent retiree of Aqua Pennsylvania making his first Centralia cleanup. "Sometimes you're just keeping up with it."

The graffiti highway was off-limits even for the cleanup, and Hughes hopes cameras can eventually be installed in town to catch both trespassers and dumpers. The fire under Centralia is moving slowly toward Mount Carmel, a borough of 5,893 about four miles away in Northumberland County. No one has an exact timeline on when it might go out. Hughes said it could be decades, but that's a guess.

"It can't burn down any lower than the water level," he said. "Eventually, though, it will burn itself out."

The Centralia mine fire hasn't stopped nature from thriving and reclaiming the concrete and asphalt grid that mapped the town. There are no dead, gnarled trees, just vegetation everywhere — and after Saturday afternoon, slightly less trash.

When the final residents die and their houses are demolished, trees will take their place, too.

"That's what's been going on here for about 40 years," Hughes said. "It's the succession of the forest."