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The New Republic: November 15, 1999

Centralia Dispatch: Hot Town

by Jake Halpern

"We've got a problem," says Lamar Mervine, the 83-year-old mayor of Centralia, Pennsylvania. The problem is that the state of Pennsylvania wants to wipe Centralia off the map. And its motivation, at least at first glance, seems reasonable: the ground beneath the town is on fire.

The fire began in 1962, in the coal mines underneath Centralia. Experts say the fire could have been extinguished if the state had acted swiftly and competently, but it didn't, and the fire still burns today--giant plumes of white smoke continuously billow from the ground, which is hot to the touch. In 1983 the federal government, fearing the town was no longer safe, appropriated $42 million for the relocation of Centralia's approximately 1, 200 residents. But Mervine and roughly 30 other Centralians were unfazed by the talk of sinkholes and poisonous gases. They say the fire poses no threat at all, and they've decided to stay--much to the consternation of Pennsylvania's government, which in 1992 declared eminent domain over Centralia and seized the deeds to the homes of all the remaining residents. "I have no reason to relocate at all," Mervine tells me one morning in the living room that isn't legally his, as he sits in a well-worn recliner and gazes out the window into the distance at a mist of white smoke rising from the ground. "I like it here."

In a way, Mervine's affection for Centralia isn't hard to understand. Most of Centralia is now empty lots overgrown with grass--indeed, Mervine has decided that his primary responsibility as mayor is mowing Centralia's lawns-- and the town has a green, pastoral feel that it must have lacked when coal was king. "We've gone from small-town America to state-park America," says John Comarnisky, another holdout. "People in the Poconos pay big money for this." Comarnisky actually moved to Centralia after the mine fire started; at 45, he is one of the town's youngest residents. "What's not to like?" he asks. "There used to be a gas station out my kitchen window; now there's just grass and trees. I've even got a nice long driveway," he says, pointing down the long, abandoned street that leads to his house.

But not everyone's reasons for staying put are as cheerful as Comarnisky's. Helen Womer, who has lived in Centralia for all of her 70 years, thinks she's sitting on top of a fortune--and that the relocation effort is actually a conspiracy to defraud Centralians of the coal beneath them. "If there wasn't this fortune of the purest anthracite coal in the country," she says, " everyone would still be here." As for who's behind this conspiracy, Womer will say only, "Government and big business.... I know who they are, but I'm not saying. People have been threatened for far less."

Indeed, anti-government sentiment in Centralia has grown so much in recent years that Mervine has started likening the residents' situation to that of the Branch Davidians in Waco. "Out there everybody was lying to them," he says, "and the same thing is happening here. Of course, Mervine notes one important tactical difference between Waco and Centralia: "We're not together- -there's a house here and a house somewhere else. In Waco they were in just one compound. With just one family in a home, we wouldn't have much chance against an armored opposition." Nevertheless, some might put up a fight, he says. "Yeah, there are a few I wouldn't trust," adds his 83-year-old wife, Lanna.

The Centralians aren't the only ones who entertain conspiracy theories. In the town of Bloomsburg, about 25 miles away, Bill Klink, director of the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, is overseeing the state's relocation effort. Klink is frustrated that, seven years after the state declared eminent domain, not one Centralian has been forcibly evicted; he feels it's time for action. "If it were up to me, they'd be out of there," he says. " This land belongs to the commonwealth."

But Klink says the Pennsylvania government doesn't want to do anything to improve the situation, and he has a theory about why: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge wants to curry favor with Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush. "Tom Ridge is considered in the top ten choices for the vice presidential nomination," Klink explains, "and I don't think that Tom Ridge wants to ruin that in any shape or form." According to Klink, Ridge won't risk a public relations disaster that might cause him to fall out of favor with Bush. "Quite frankly, I think that is what's holding him back," Klink says.

All this has forced the state to mount a "weak response" to the situation in Centralia, says Klink. "They have really not done anything dynamic to shake these people up, so to speak--to say, 'Look, you got to go.'" Making matters worse, time is running out on the availability of the money Congress appropriated for the relocation. According to Klink, the Pennsylvania government has roughly one year to decide whether to evict the remaining Centralians; otherwise, the cost of relocating them will be passed along to the state, and no one wants that. "There is going to have to be some more forcible action," Klink says.

In the meantime, Klink says the state is limited to sending Centralians notes in the mail reminding them that they have been evicted. "That's all we do right now," Klink tells me with an exasperated sigh.

Back in Centralia, the Mervines have a drawer where they keep all the letters that come from the state. But Lanna Mervine can no longer remember what the letters say. "We read them, but then we put them away and forget about them," she says.

There are, however, some reminders that Lanna has been unable to avoid. One day not so long ago, she went to get her hair done in a neighboring town. Lanna's hairdresser complained to her that Centralia's coal fire was infecting the wind with a strong stench of sulfur. "She acted like it was my fault," Lanna says.