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The Real Disaster Is Above Ground

The Real Disaster Is Above Ground: A Mine Fire and Social Conflict

Copyright Date: 1990
Edition: 1
Pages: 212
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  • Book Info
    The Real Disaster Is Above Ground
    Book Description:

    In the 1950s Centralia was a small town, like many others in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. But since the 1960s, it has been consumed, outwardly and inwardly by a fire that has inexorably spread in the abandoned mines beneath it. The earth smokes, subsides, and breathes poisonous gases. No less destructive has been the spread of dissension and enmity among the townspeople.The Real Disaster Above Groundtells the story of the fire and the tragic failure of all efforts to counter it.

    This study of the Centralia fire represents the most thorough canvass of the documentary materials and the community that has appeared. The authors report on the futile efforts of residents to reach a common understanding of an underground threat that was not readily visible and invited multiple interpretations. They trace the hazard management strategies of government agencies that, ironically, all too often created additional threats to the welfare of Centralians. They report on the birth and demise of community organizations, each with its own solution to the problem and its diehard partisans. The final solution, now being put into effect, is to abandon the town and relocate its people.

    Centralia's environmental disaster, the authors argue, is not a local or isolated phenomenon. It warns of the danger lurking in our own technology when safeguards fail and disaster management policy is not in place to respond to failure, as the examples of Chernobyl and Bhopal have clearly demonstrated.

    The lessons in this study of the fate of a small town in Pennsylvania are indeed sobering. They should be pondered by a variety of social scientists and planners, by all those dealing with the behavior of people under stress and those responsible for the welfare of the public.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5056-7
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Business

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: A Dying Coal Town
    (pp. 1-12)

    Northern Appalachia is a region of contrasts. In some ways it is like other predominantly rural areas of the Northeast. In some ways it resembles the rest of Appalachia to the south. In others ways it is unique.

    Many of the contrasts are quickly apparent to visitors who drive south from Danville, Pennsylvania, on State Route 54. Mile after mile of rich farmland stretches among rolling hills, dotted with handsome farm buildings and occasional suburban ranch houses. As the hills give way to more mountainous terrain, the farms become fewer and the rich black soil fades away into patches of...

  5. 1. King Coal Built a Town but Not a Community
    (pp. 13-28)

    A little over a century ago, the anthracite coal mining region of Pennsylvania was embroiled in one of the more famous labor conflicts in American history. A major part in this conflict was played by the Molly Maguires, a clandestine Irish organization considered by some to be the champions of liberty and by others, anarchic terrorists.

    According to local legend, the Mollies accosted the rector of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church in Centralia and beat him up because ofhis staunch opposition to them. The priest returned to the church, rang the bell to summon his congregation, and in his anger...

  6. 2. The Engineering Puzzle, 1962-1981
    (pp. 29-42)

    A mine fire is a disaster of a very different sort from an earthquake, a tornado, or a tsunami. After a tsunami, or tidal wave, hits a shoreline, it recedes. The aftermath is frequently devastating, but survivors and relief workers can proceed to rebuild without first trying to control the disaster agent itself. It may be possible to predict a tsunami, but nobody is expected to stop it. On the other hand, the Centralia mine fire, like the dioxin contamination of Times Beach, Missouri, was of human origin, and only human technical intervention could halt its hazardous course.

    In the...

  7. 3. Ambiguous Evidence and Contradictory Signals
    (pp. 43-53)

    Most people who are caught in a hurricane or a tornado describe the experience as something recognized, as foreknown, even though it may in fact have been their first encounter with such a disaster. Beyond the immediate community, even those who do not experience the disaster themselves share with the survivors a common definition of the calamity. The consensus of the community and outside agencies in defining the event as a disaster encourages a coordinated response within the town. Neighbor works with neighbor to rebuild, and resources outside the town are mobilized according to established disaster policies of government and...

  8. 4. A Group Emerges and the Town Divides
    (pp. 54-74)

    Taking their cue from the hostage crisis in Iran, several residents on the south end of Centralia began to think oftheir predicament as being parallel to the forceful, illegal detaining of Americans in a hostile environment. One family painted a sign, roughly 3 feet by 3 feet, worded “Mine Fire Holds Families Hostage!!!” and secured it to a fence next to the street for all to see.

    In January 1981, the warning device on the carbon monoxide monitor in one Centralia home started sounding almost every other day, alerting the family by a loud, persistent ring that the air in...

  9. 5. Confrontation and Conflict
    (pp. 75-107)

    The Concerned Citizens Against the Centralia Mine Fire had an impact on the town that was completely out of proportion to its brief existence. In the twenty-one months from its first meeting, in March of 1981, until the officers of the organization resigned in November of 1982, the CC polarized the community. The mine fire itself took second place to the schisms between competing groups, displayed in anger and hostility and sustained by disagreements over specific issues associated with the fire.¹

    Many Centralians outside the CC were concerned about the fire and wanted to do something about it but could...

  10. 6. A Thwarted Struggle for Unity
    (pp. 108-131)

    For one and a half years, the Concerned Citizens struggled to persuade the political system and their own neighbors that the mine fire represented a serious threat to health and safety and to the well-being of the community. The activist group helped to bring Centralia to the attention of the state and federal governments, and generated the kind of public sympathy conducive to political action. Moreover, the CC's trips to Washington and Harrisburg were effective tactics in pushing the mine fire toward the front of political concern. Their constant reminders that the government’s responsibility to protect health and safety went...

  11. 7. One Town, Many Groups
    (pp. 132-149)

    In late March 1983, as the Unity Committee was facing the true difficulties of forging a cooperative organization, and as the Centralia Committee For Human Development was planning its first public meeting, the federal Office of Surface Mining released an interim report from the borehole study, which was then in the final stages. Based on examination of 189 boreholes, the report noted: “The high temperature area (400-1000°F) covers a larger area than was originally conceived.” Of the sixty-seven borehole temperature readings listed in the report, forty-one were higher than normal, some hitting 1000 °F.¹

    The borehole study not only revealed...

  12. 8. “This Town Is Dead”
    (pp. 150-157)

    Although the Neighborhood Area Meetings on July 26 produced a consensus on the future of Centralians, the mayor and the Borough Council refused on the next evening to recognize the citizens’ plebiscite favoring relocation. The refusal was based not on the results of the meetings, but on who had sponsored them. As one councilman made very clear, “We are the elected officials responsible for this town, not anybody else.”

    The mayor opened the public meeting on July 27 by calling the neighborhood meetings “nonsense.” “What do we need this for?” he yelled. Some people in the audience shouted back at...

  13. 9. Making Sociological Sense of the Story
    (pp. 158-172)

    A funeral was held in Centralia recently. Black-clad middle-aged and elderly people entered coal-black limousines, which lined the curb in front of one of the few remaining occupied row homes on Locust Avenue. Burial was in the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery on the hot side of town. Within sight of boarded-up homes and of steam spewing from the ground and from venting pipes rising toward the sky, the priest from a neighboring town said the committal prayers: “... we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her,...

  14. Appendix: Participatory Research in Centralia
    (pp. 173-177)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 178-197)
  16. Index
    (pp. 198-200)