…burning since the world’s been turning: mine fires and coal in Central Pennsylvania

There is no other state I know with such a wide-spread affinity for burning things as is found in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But on May 27, 1962, instead of simply burning up trash and debris in the Centralia town dump,  several firefighters accidentally set the ground beneath their feet on fire. The fire escaped from the surface, into a seam of anthracite coal, the very resource that established both town of Centralia all the towns all across the Hard Coal region of Pennsylvania.

The fire burns on, decades later, as proved by the steam and smoke still escaping from a fissure in an abandoned highway. Through government failures and the damage caused by the ground collapsing in the wake of the underground flames (subsidence), the town is all but abandoned today. It is here in coal country, that we begin the first of two weeks exploring the legacy of extractive economies in the watershed of the Susquehanna.

The Bots Crew in Centralia, Pa., observing traces of the mine fire gassing off through a crack formed by subsidence under old Highway 61.

To understand a region that has defined itself by its vast reserves of natural resources, it is essential that we visit examples of the types of extraction that have taken place over the last century or more. Less than an hour from campus the landscape changes from rural farm land to a rough, almost moon-like, terrain. Driving through Shamokin, once a central hub of the coal mining industry, the scrappy buildings, narrow streets, and steep hills are indicative of towns built around anthracite extraction.

Our first destination,though,  is the aforementioned Centralia, the “town that was.” To my surprise, due to the bright sunshine and the fact that the worst of the fire has burned its way out of the town, the scene was was not nearly as austere and depressing as I had come to imagine from old photographs and melodramatic documentaries. And then in the distance, symbols of an entirely different era and attitude toward the environment stand in stark juxtaposition with the barren landscape. Wind turbines line the distant ridge, turning away quietly and almost bringing a sense of  completeness to the scene; from the land being heavily used and exhausted, to the people leaving, and now icons of our new drive for renewable energy swirl away peacefully in a land once dedicated to extraction and one-time-use.

Joanna looks a little bit nervous about the 400 foot high escape shaft...the only escape for miners (or us) in the event of a cave-in on the main tunnel.

In Ashland, Pa., the BotS crew and a group from the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs (NAAMLP) share a tour of the Pioneer Tunnel Historic Mine. Going deep into the mine, we got to see the very roots of the mountain, and we caught a glimpse of the lives of those who never saw the light of day, spending every daylight hour deep inside the earth. The work these men did was incredibly dangerous, and it began as early as a 10 year old boys picking shale out of the coal coming from the mines. The legacy of the hard-fought existence of these immigrants is still visible today in the tenacious persistence of “coal-cracker towns” up and down these valleys that, like Centralia, refuse to die. In the words of Bucknell Professor of Geography, Dr. Ben Marsh, “We know how to start towns, but we don’t know how to close them.”

Today, mining has left an ugly legacy that can be seen in nearly every stream in coal country and that has rendered entire portions of the West Branch of the Susquehanna devoid of life for miles. When a mine closes and the pumps stop, the water table reclaims the open passages rather quickly, and it is common for water to pour out the entrances and shafts of abandoned mines. Due to the geo-chemistry of the sulfide rocks that bear coal seams, a number of very undesirable processes, known collectively as acid mine drainage (AMD) occur and pollute both streams and rivers. Upon contact with the air, iron hydroxide precipitates out of the solution, depositing a yellow-orange sludge known as “yellow boy” onto the stream bottom, while also lowering the Ph of the water with the production of sulfuric acid.

In short, streams affected by mine drainage become incapable of supporting life unless actions are taken to mediate the geo-chemical processes. Our last stop of that day was to visit a constructed wetland, a series of ponds that

The effects of acid mine drainage stain the streams all over this region of Pennsylvania, and this constructed wetland is maintained in an attempt to reduce the impacts of AMD on local ecology, and ultimately the Susquehanna River.

passively buffer the impacts of drainage on Shamokin Creek.

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