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Old Timers Won’t Be Driven From Homes by Underground Mine Fire

October 16, 1995

CENTRALIA, Pa. (AP) _ Like a geriatric militia, the last few residents of this town are fighting to stay in their homes, though they sit atop a smoldering mine fire that could burn for a millennium.

``You think this is America, but it’s not,″ said Dave Lamb, owner of the only business left, an auto repair shop. ``If they can just take your home away for no reason, it might as well be Russia.″

The state has ordered the 46 holdouts, mostly retired couples or widows and all that’s left from the 1,100 who lived here in 1980, to move out. Geologists say they’re in danger because the fire that’s been feeding on the veins of coal below the town for 33 years is leaving great empty caverns behind.

``Everybody that’s here now is going to fight until the end. If not, they would have given up a long time ago,″ said Mayor Lamar Mervine, a retired miner.

Residents claim that state bureaucrats are conspiring with a company that wants the town cleared out so it can mine the coal, then open a landfill. The borough owns the mineral rights to the coal below it.

Bob Spielman, lawyer for the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, which is in charge of moving the residents, said the cost of extinguishing the fire would approach $1 billion, far more than any salvaged coal would bring.

``Our geologists said that the fire could burn for 500 to 1,000 years, until all the coal is burned,″ he said.

Hundreds of families sold their homes in a $42 million federal buyout offered in 1983. The authority condemned all the houses in 1992. The residents claim that was unlawful, but lost another round this month when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal.

Their lawyer, Lewis Kates, declined to discuss what the next move might be until the borough council decides on its next step.

``The average age of my clients is 81,″ Kates said. ``I don’t understand why the government won’t let these people live out their days where they have always lived.″

The entire town is in danger of collapse, Spielman said. The main road into Centralia is closed because a 60-foot hole lies just below its bed.

``As the coal burns, those pillars of coal that held up the surface no longer exist,″ he said. ``Geologists tell us that will continue to happen all over town.″

Barbara Kenenitz doesn’t buy it: ``If there was danger here, we’d see smoke or flames. The only danger is from the government. Who is the government anyway? I thought it was the people.″

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