Around 180,000 acres of mine tunnels have been abandoned in Pennsylvania. But the coal is still there, burning inextinguishably in some places. A correspondent for The Economist travels to see a 94-year-old fire ...
Central Pennsylvania—specifically, the Lackawanna river valley, comprising the towns of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Carbondale and Ashley—was the centre of America’s anthracite coal-mining industry. First struck in Pottsville in the late 18th century, anthracite is still mined, though in smaller quantities. All told, around 180,000 acres of mine tunnels have been abandoned. But the coal is still there, and in 36 mines it is burning, with no easy way to extinguish it. I came to Wilkes-Barre to see a 94-year-old fire.
Together with a videographer, I drove up from Washington on four-lane highways through tree-lined corridors—a far cry from my usual route north, along the seaboard-hugging, eight-to-12-lane I-95. Ian Frazier once wrote that the verdancy of these highways deliberately obscures the ugly reality of mining. Indeed when I went looking for the Olyphant mine fire near Scranton, a convenience-store clerk told me it was just off the Casey highway, but had no idea how to get there. The highway had neither a shoulder nor any helpful exits, and it made a huge gradual curve around what was likely the Olyphant mine, which has been burning since 2004, when two locals set a stolen car on fire on an exposed coal seam.
Mine fires are tough to find. It’s not as though local authorities want to mount signs pointing visitors to a belching, smoking, inextinguishable environmental disaster. But there is something bizarre and compelling about these fires, and they draw their share of firebugs.
Unable to locate the Olyphant mine, we headed south toward Laurel Run, just outside Wilkes-Barre, where the Red Ash colliery has been burning since 1915. Directions from an enthusiast’s website lead me out of town, onto a bypass road, then up a hillside on a narrow, winding road. Sure enough, just past a turnoff onto a smaller road we spy three tell-tale vents: thick, rusted steel candy-canes sticking about a foot out of the ground, behind a chain-link fence. Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the lungs of everybody in Laurel Run, they are just sitting there peacefully: no smoke. When I put my hand to the earth, however, I find it warm (mine fires can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit). We decide to drive a bit further up the hill.
We find a few more silent vents, as well as a trailer park sitting on an outcropped plateau. The area next to the park’s mailbox offers a lovely view over the valley—I hadn’t realised until then how high we had climbed—and my shooter wants to film it. She sets up behind a length of chain festooned with multiple “No trespassing” signs as I keep lookout. A screen door creaks open to my right and I prepare an explanation.
“You know, if you want I could let you get a little closer.” If the hardscrabble, gently rolling, rocky landscape of central Pennsylvania were to be incarnated as a person, it would look like the man who made that offer. Small and barrel-chested, Gene has a shaggy white and red beard, cropped grey hair, shining blue eyes and a genial, impish manner. He wears a T-shirt that reads “I’m a drinker, not a fighter”, though I suspect he could break me down and sell me for parts if the mood struck him.
As he tells us what we’re seeing in the valley below, I am reminded of the Georgian and Basque languages: both sui generis, related to little or nothing else. People in valleys tend to stay there. Gene speaks with an unfamiliar accent: not the rolling flatness of Philadelphia and Baltimore, with their telltale long “o”s, nor the clipped Pittsburgh yinzer (so called because in Pittsburgh the plural of you is “yinz”), but something I’ve never heard before.
After ten minutes of conversation and shooting (with a camera, though gunfire can be heard in the woods below) we head back downhill. This time we see the smoke, puffing gently from the vents and mightily from a couple of crevasses in the earth. The air has an acrid scent, and I notice that the grass beneath the vents and around the crevasses is yellowish and sere. A few cars cruise by as we’re filming. One slows and asks me to take his picture (I oblige), but none stop. This fire has been burning since before we were born; the rising smoke is unremarkable. Extinguishing the fire is too expensive and uncertain of success for anybody to fund. The mine shafts ensure it has plenty of air, and it has all the fuel it needs.
When I finally park in front of my house it’s nearly 10pm: two five-hour drives in a day have left my legs gummy and my back sore. I stretch on my silent street, drawing in deep lungfuls of air that carries the first loamy, blossomy hints of spring. It smells good.