centralia, penn
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Centralia, the town that sits on an incessant underground fire, and other ghost towns

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Author | M. Martínez Euklidiadas

"Warning, danger: Underground mine fire. Walking or driving in this area could result in serious injury or death, ground is prone to sudden collapse", a sign reads at the entrance to Centralia. This old American town is not the only one that had to be evacuated as a result of acts by humans, who are not as smart as we would like to think we are.

Centralia, the town built on embers

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From a distance, and if you hold your nose to avoid the smell of the coal burning underground, Centralia is a pleasant green valley in Columbia County, Pennsylvania. First occupied by Native Americans before they were expelled by European settlers, it was the latter who settled in the region and started digging.

We know that a few homes existed in the 18th century, but it was not until 1841 that the town of Centreville was built. In around 1856, a couple of mines had already been opened, but what prompted the abandonment of the town was the fire almost certainly caused by tipping hot ash into an improvised dump inside one of the old coal mine tunnels.

That happened at the end of May 1962, and although the fire services tried for days to put out the fire, even tipping inert materials onto the coal, the truth is the fire kept on burning. We are used to devastating and explosive fires, but this one is slow and constant.

It is so slow that the authorities understood the problem when a gas station blew up in 1979. The fuel, buried beneath a large mound of earth, caught fire spontaneously due to the underground heat. In 1981, one person almost died when the soil collapsed below a child who was luckily rescued by his cousin.

However, the town of Centralia was soon declared a dangerous area and received federal funds to move as many people as possible. Although not all the residents wanted to leave, most did. In the early 1990s, there were barely a dozen people left in the town, and only five by 2020 and nobody is thought to live there now. Nearby towns such as Byrnesville, were also evacuated. And this will continue to be the case for at least two centuries, when the mine stops burning.

As of today, nothing of the old town remains. Most buildings have been demolished due to security concerns with the exception of the fire station, giving way to the forest. Centralia is no more.

Other ghost towns abandoned because of environmental disasters

Moving Arkwright Town due to emissions of methane gas

A similar thing happened in Arkwright Town, in the United Kingdom, when the town had to be moved in the 1990s when methane gas started seeping up from the ground The mine that had supported previous generations —Arkwright Town was a town established by a coal company— had become a poison dispenser for humans.

That was not the first time an entire town had to be abandoned because of pollution. A decade earlier, Times Beach (Missouri) had to be completely evacuated early in 1983 due to TCDD (a type of dioxin), a highly contaminating herbicide that was used in Vietnam under the name of ‘Orange Agent’. In order to understand what dioxin was doing there, we have to go back to the end of the 1960s, when the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company, Inc. started manufacturing this compound in the area and, obviously, without implementing the basic environmental protection protocols.

Namie, the Japanese city abandoned due to radiation

A much more recent case is the evacuation of Namie, Futaba, Okuma and Tomioka (in the Fukushima Prefecture, due to radiation caused by the nuclear disaster of 2011. Pripyat in Ukraine, is also known for being one of the first towns to be evacuated due to radiation, although it is not the only one. Kopachi, near to Pripyat, or Muslyumovo, in Russia have also been abandoned.

There are even some towns on the American continent that have been abandoned due to radiation. Atomic City —the name says it all—, in Idaho, suffered a nuclear accident in 1955; and Idaho Falls was the victim of another nuclear accident in 1961.

Epecuén, abandoned after a wave of corrosive water

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Epecuén, southwest of Buenos Aires, was for many years a tourist village. Next to a highly saline warm water lake, tourists enjoyed themselves floating on the water. However, in 1985, a dam that was in extremely bad condition, suddenly burst after a storm and destroyed the village.

Luckily, it was evacuated in time, but never recovered. Epecuén is now a dead zone due to the extremely high salinity levels in the soil, which prevents anything from growing there or anything surviving with the exception of some bacteria. The soil is dead, metal has corroded and there are no sources of drinking water. Now it is just a ghost town and attracts a different form of tourism: curious tourists.

The tragedy of this place is that it was built in an area that often flooded. A similar thing happened in Schuld in 2021, a small German town located in a basin. Lack of historical memory of floods often inundates (sometimes every century) cities Deltebre (Tarragona, Spain) with 86% of its population at risk of flooding as a result of being built on a riverbed.

Unfortunately for us humans, we are very good at building in areas in which it is not really stable enough to lay down two bricks, and at polluting other sites. That is the way it has been up until now, however, environmental awareness in recent decades could prevent many of today’s towns from being abandoned in the future.

Images | Santiago matamoro, Lyndi & Jason, Billy/Adobe Stock

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