Holdouts in Pa. town above decades-old mine fire claim condemnations part of ‘massive fraud’

By Michael Rubinkam, AP
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pa. coal town above mine fire claims massive fraud

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Centralians have long believed the government’s demolition of their beloved town in the 1980s was part of a plot to swipe the mineral rights to anthracite coal worth hundreds of millions of dollars — and not, as state and federal officials said, the solution to an out-of-control underground mine fire that menaced the town with toxic gases.

Now, in a last-ditch effort to save their homes from the wrecking ball, the few holdouts who remain in the Pennsylvania town are taking their claims of a conspiracy to court.

In a filing late Monday, four property owners and the borough of Centralia said a “massive fraud” forced the needless relocation of more than 1,000 residents and the destruction of more than 500 homes. The property owners asked a state appeals court to stop Pennsylvania officials from kicking them out and finishing off the town 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

“Nobody wants a penny. They just want to be left alone,” said Tom Hynoski, a Centralia native whose mother and sister are among the petitioners.

The state condemned the homes in the early 1990s but only recently moved to oust those who remain. The state’s attorney on Tuesday ridiculed the residents’ claims as “conspiracy theories” and predicted they would be dismissed.

Centralia was all but wiped off the map as the slow-burning mine fire that began in 1962 at the town dump spread to the network of mines beneath the town, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes. A $42 million government relocation program was largely completed by 1993, when officials invoked eminent domain to get dozens of holdouts to leave.

The property owners said in court documents they have evidence that the fire is “almost out” and no longer endangers their homes, if it ever did. Data kept by the Department of Environmental Protection show that underground temperatures have gone down by “several hundred percent” since measurements began. Further, a 2008 DEP study found that emissions of toxic gases are not a problem, according to court documents.

“There is no mine fire or other related condition that justifies the taking of their property,” the petition said.

State environmental officials, though, insist the fire remains a threat to the residents’ health. The blaze has likely followed the coal seam deeper underground — reducing temperatures in certain monitoring bore holes — but gases from the fire can still accumulate in houses atop the fire, they say.

Property owners also claim in court documents that their town was ruined “in the face of evidence that suggests that a massive fraud may have been perpetrated” by parties “motivated primarily by interests in what is conservatively estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars of some of the best anthracite coal in the world.”

Their attorney, Andrew Ostrowski, said Tuesday that the borough owns the mineral rights. Once Centralia ceases to exist, the rights go to the state, which could sell them to a coal company to operate “one of the most productive strip mine operations in the country,” he said.

Steve Fishman, in-house counsel for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, the agency carrying out eminent domain, disputed that Centralia owns the coal underneath the town, saying that it’s not clear who possesses the mineral rights but that he knows of no legal document giving the borough an ownership stake.

He predicted Commonwealth Court would toss the residents’ petition, noting it raises claims nearly 20 years after the fact.

“I’ve never doubted they would try this, since their pattern has always been simply to delay, hoping that at some point we’ll simply go away,” Fishman said.

As far as the fire, he said, “I don’t think there’s anyone who seriously believes that the fire is out, and that it does not pose a threat.”

Another attorney for the Centralians, Don Bailey, a former congressman and state auditor general, is working on a separate federal civil rights lawsuit in hopes of recovering “seed money” to rebuild the borough, Ostrowski said.

One key issue raised in the Commonwealth Court petition, and likely to be raised in the federal suit, is a 2006 agreement between the Department of Community and Economic Development and Centralia homeowners Robert and Mary Netchel that allowed the Netchels to keep their home.

In December, Ostrowski sent a letter to John Zelinka, an attorney working on behalf of the economic development department, seeking the same deal for his clients. He said Zelinka never responded.

Fishman, the department counsel, said the Netchels were permitted to hang on to their house because it was on the fringes of the fire impact zone, and not in any danger.

But Hynoski produced a map that places the Netchel house squarely in the middle of the eminent domain zone, with many houses knocked down on either side of it.

“We just want to be treated the same way the Netchels were,” said Hynoski, who hopes to attract civil rights groups to his cause. “It is clear violation of the 14th Amendment, equal protection. The government cannot do for one person and not do for another person in the same circumstance.”

He said none of the people who still live in Centralia have ever gotten sick from the fire.

will not be displayed