Friday 27 May 2016

Smouldering, Pennsylvania

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The economy of the USA boomed in the couple of decades after WWII. GIs returned from Europe and the Pacific War with a determination that the good things of life wouldn't pass them by. The good things in life weren't only the love of a good woman and singing hymns with the Reverend Gusto on Sunday. Th GTiL also included consumer durables - fridges, washing-machines, cars, vacuum-cleaners; but also consumer ephemera - weird-coloured breakfast cereal; a bottle of coke every day; paper plates and a lot of plastic, as packing and as the ding-an-sich - think Barbie dolls and replica M-16s.  This-all generated a lot of trash. So much trash that it could no longer be dealt with the traditional way of firing out the kitchen window into the midden. So municipalities across the US, and indeed across the Western World, collected their tax-payers discards and dumped it all in a convenient place where it wouldn't be an eyesore and not near enough to rich-folks' houses to offend them with the smells. If there was a convenient hole in the ground - an old mine or quarry, say - then the job was half done.

The town of Centralia, PA had plenty of holes and culverts to choose from because it was situated in the middle of the Pennsylvania coal field and there were many abandonned strip mines where shallower seams of coal had been abstracted to leave large dents in the earth's surface. A number of these were re-purposed as landfill or used by the citizenry for night-time fly-tipping of last year's fridge or last month's toy or yesterday's bag of packaging material from the last run to the supermarket.  In 1962, the town council woke up to the fact that they were all living in a tip and as Memorial Day - with its parades and festivities - approached, on 27th May 1962, they asked the local fire-department to clean up the largest of the dumps which was nearest the centre of Centralia.  Like in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, these firemen, rather than putting out fires, started one to burn the books trash.  Maybe to 'dispose' of it; maybe to reduce the heap below the horizon of the pit edge.  There is also a chance that the fire, perhaps started by these city employees on 27th May was coincidental with a fire started a few days or a few years before. On this hypothesis, the Aktion 27 May only served to draw everyone's attention to the fact that the fire / a fire / some fires which had penetrated from the surface into the layers of subterranean mine-workings.

 When the local fire-brigade were called out the next day to put out the fire, they were more in the comfort zone but no matter how much water they dumped on the obvious sources of smoke and flame, the fire sputtered to life again shortly after they left. The city council, somewhat disingenuously called up the LeHigh Valley Coal Company and asked what LVCC planned to do about the fire in their old mine-workings.

The long story short is that the Centralia fire is still burning exactly 54 years after the day it was first noticed/started. The public representatives who either started or failed to stop the fire have succeeded in destroying the whole community: in 1960 nearly 1,500 people called Centralia home; the US Congress allocated $42 million in 1984 to relocate residents. the last handful of residents were formally evicted by the government in 2010. Chunks of the town have subsided as the subsoil was eaten away and a miasma of toxic gases hangs over what's left; so it's clearly not a fit place to bring up children.

No comments:

Post a Comment