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Centralia's last 9 residents fight eviction

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Sunday, May 2, 2010
 

CENTRALIA -- The weed-choked sidewalk dips to the street, flattens and rises again, offering an opening for a car that will never come.

Behind it, tall grass and scattered wildflowers bend in the wind, covering a lot so thoroughly reclaimed by nature that only the disappearing driveway entrance hints at where a house once stood. Beside this lot is another, and another beyond it -- hundreds of them in blocks sectioned by a neat grid of streets in the trough of a lush valley.

Eleven hundred people lived here when the coal underground caught fire on the valley's southern crest in 1962. Nine remain. They're asking a Commonwealth Court judge in Harrisburg on Monday to stop the state from evicting them. The state says dangerous gases could seep into their homes. Residents say the real reason is someone wants access to the coal worth $1 billion under their town.

A Wilkes-Barre law firm the state Department of Community and Economic Development hired to handle evictions was involved in transferring Centralia real estate to a coal company operating just outside town. The coal company's president said he doesn't employ the law firm. A lawyer at the firm declined to comment on the matter.

"The problem in Centralia here -- I'm going to tell you this -- is not the mine fire. The problem in Centralia is the government and DCED. Not the mine fire. It never was," said Tom Hynoski, an anthracite coal miner and Centralia's fire chief.

Four of the remaining residents are Hynoski's relatives, and most of the nine are in their 80s, he said. In winter, he and his brother, Steve, plow the streets of their dying town about 60 miles northeast of Harrisburg.

The valley's water table stands between the burning coal and Centralia. But horizontal tunnels bored through vertical layers of coal and rock link the burning vein with other coal seams and rock strata, feeding oxygen to the fire and carrying away noxious gases that could rise into what's left of the town, said state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Rathbun.

The people who have lived 48 years with fire, gawking tourists and descriptions of their home as a ghost town and wasteland don't buy it.

Underground riches

As much as 25 million tons of some of the highest-quality anthracite coal in the world lies buried beneath the town. At $40 a ton, that's potentially $1 billion entombed in limestone and clay beneath Centralia's overgrown streets. Anthracite is harder, has a higher carbon content and burns cleaner than bituminous coal. The country's only anthracite mines are in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

"This coal is so clean you can eat off it," said Donald Bailey, a former U.S. House member and state auditor general who will represent the homeowners Monday. "There was no need for this (eminent domain declaration) to begin with. It was an exaggerated fear. And you really have to question why the state keeps after this. Why are we still doing this?"

The Wilkes-Barre law firm Rosenn Jenkins & Greenwald, hired by DCED to handle the legal side of evictions, will argue the lawsuit is without merit, said attorney John Zelinka.

Hynoski points to the Blaschak Coal Corp. strip mine beside his hometown. Company President Anthony Blaschak owns surface land within Centralia, and the mine extends near the borough's border. Hynoski says the government of Centralia owns the mineral rights to the coal beneath it, a legal rarity dating to a 1960s deed transfer from Coates Coal Co.

Borough owns the coal

As long as the borough government continues to exist, it decides the fate of the coal, Hynoski said. Once the people are gone, their government will disappear, he said.

"They're grabbing at straws," Blaschak said. His mining operation near Centralia began around 2000. "If it turns out that they are moved and it opens up the opportunity (to mine in Centralia), we will certainly do that. But we are not doing it. We don't have any plans of doing it. We certainly don't wake up in the morning contriving to put the people of Centralia out of their homes."

Rosenn Jenkins & Greenwald represented a former Centralia resident from whom Blaschak bought property, Blaschak said.

"Accusations have been made that are completely untrue and unfounded. I never employed those people," Blaschak said. The firm wrote the title insurance policy, and that was the extent of the company's dealings with them, he said.

Blaschak mines about 150,000 tons of coal a year. The company won't be able to get through the land it has for 10 to 15 years, Blaschak said.

"I don't know how they can make accusations like this and not be held responsible," Blaschak said.

Eminent domain

Hynoski is a second-generation anthracite miner, the owner of a small family mine he operates with his brother near town. He mines about 20,000 tons a year. Hynoski said he has no interest in the coal beneath Centralia, noting the people here could have opened a mine anytime.

"Nobody here wants a penny. We just want to be left alone. And we spent $20,000 of our own money on these lawyers to keep (our) own house," Hynoski said.

The fire ignited on the hill overlooking the town when a burning trash heap lit an exposed face of the Buck anthracite vein. Poisonous gases seeped into nearby homes. The fire, burning as hot as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, raised the temperatures of gasoline tanks at a fueling station to more than 170 degrees.

The federal government in 1984 allocated $42 million to relocate the town. In 1992, with 53 homeowners remaining, the state declared eminent domain, but it didn't begin evicting people until recently, Hynoski and others said. Officials with DCED declined to comment because of the court hearing.

One of those evicted was John Comarnisky, 55, in June 2009. The letter from Rosenn Jenkins & Greenwald came within a week of his accepting a settlement value of about $72,000 for the house he inherited from his parents. He said he didn't know his acceptance of the home's value meant the end of his legal claim to the house.

The letter gave him 15 days to clear out. If he didn't, the letter stated, law enforcement might be called to remove him.

"If you have somebody ... who's acting on behalf of the commonwealth saying now you've got 15 days to do something, that gets really scary," Comarnisky said. He began a harried search for another place to live. "I'm not going to sit on my porch with a shotgun."

DCED allowed him time to find a home, Comarnisky said. What bothers him is that the notice -- and the newfound urgency to remove Centralia's residents -- arrived one year after the Department of Environmental Protection released a report saying the air in Centralia was not dangerous.

"It doesn't make any sense," said Comarnisky, who lives in nearby Ashland. "When you see things like that happen, you just have to wonder if someone's getting tired of waiting."

Seeping gases contested

The danger isn't in the air, Rathbun said. State regulators worry about carbon monoxide and other gases that could seep through basement walls.

"That was where the problems were being found" when the state declared eminent domain, Rathbun said. "People's houses were filling up with carbon monoxide."

"Nobody was ever overcome in their homes here," said Hynoski, who joined the fire department in 1978.

The state stopped indoor monitoring in a church and the municipal building (residents wouldn't let them into homes) after the eminent domain declaration, Rathbun said.

Residents say holes bored into the hillside to monitor the fire's temperature show it has fallen to between 100 and 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Rathbun said that's because the fire moved away from those holes.

"You buy a piece of property, but it isn't yours," said Chuck Martienssen, 49, of West Hazleton, about 40 minutes east of Centralia. He and his wife, Carolyn, 64, have been documenting the town's disappearance for a year.

"If the government wants it, they come in and take it. Here," he said, nodding past the smoking hillside toward the overgrown lots, disappearing sidewalks and empty streets, "they took a whole town."

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