The Centralia Council, representative of a small Pennsylvania borough, arranged for an illegal controlled burn of the Centralia landfill in late May 1962. It happened the same way every year. As Memorial Day drew closer, the Council contracted volunteer firefighters to burn the top layer of refuse in the landfill in preparation for the day’s festivities, but intentionally burning landfills violated state law. A tangle of events over the years saw the “controlled” burn develop into an underground mine fire and then into a coal seam fire. Excavation costs lie far beyond the state’s budget, and Pennsylvania plans to let the fire burn until its natural end--anticipated at another 240 years. The tangled mess of poor decisions over 21 years begs one question: did the people or the fire kill Centralia?
This paper’s field of study falls into the cross section of geology and fire science, history, social conflict, public service ethics, and collaborative failures. I explore how a series of small choices snowballed into a full, government funded relocation effort after attempts at controlling the anthracite coal seam fire failed. Geology and fire science worked in tandem during the mine fire, influencing each other and complicating the firefighting efforts. The fire itself was a unique challenge. The history of Centralia played a large role in the government and community response efforts. I use the borough and regional history to contextualize the social conflict that divided Centralia. Social conflict impaired the community’s ability to unify and form a therapeutic community, and in turn, it damaged community-government relationships. The government agencies involved in the mine fire response did their own damage to community relationships by pursuing their own interests. Agencies worried about their brand image, and politicians worried about re-election. I study how these ethical failures impacted the situation. Finally, I look at a few examples of collaborative failures on behalf of the government and the community. Over the course of my research, it became apparent the people killed Centralia, not the fire.