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The great American clean-up: Volunteers clean-up illegal dumping in Centralia

September 2016

On 24 September 2016, 60 volunteers from a wide age-range gathered in Centralia, Pennsylvania, a borough in the heart of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, for a community clean-up.  Although the borough is virtually abandoned, with only 6 residents remaining, two busy state roads run through it, so Centralia is far from deserted.

Some of those vehicles traveling through the borough slip down the deserted former residential streets and dump their garbage, everything from household waste, to appliances, to furniture, to old tires.  Over time, this illegal dumping amounts to significant amount of garbage, something that both Bobby Hughes of EPCAMR (Eastern PA Coalition of Abandoned Mine Reclamation) and filmmaker Joe Sapienza II found troubling, so they decided to do something about it.

Organized by EPCAMR, the first clean-up took place in May 2014, with at least one every year since then, although this one was the second for 2016.  In past clean-ups, over 4 tons of trash and 400 old tires have been collected.  Sadly, the illegal dumping continues.

EPCAMR has established a partnership with several current and former residents, including Tom Hynoski, the Fire Chief of Centralia and one of the 5 remaining residents, along with volunteers from the surrounding area.  This fall’s clean-up was once again organized by Hughes and Sapienza, who is currently working on a documentary about Centralia.

So why is Centralia virtually abandoned today, when it once had a population of almost 2500 residents in the 1940s?  Why did most of the residents leave Centralia?

A coal-mine fire has been burning under the borough since May 1962 when the fire company conducted a controlled burn of the garbage in the town dump, which was in a former strip-mine pit on the south-east side of town.  Unfortunately, the fire was not fully extinguished and an unsealed opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia.  Attempts to extinguish the fire over the next several months failed.

Over the next 2 decades, numerous attempts were made to extinguish and then contain the fire, but all failed.  Life in the town became very hazardous with carbon monoxide-filled smoke billowing out of cracks in the ground and later specially placed smokestacks designed to “safely” vent the gases.  Occasionally a subsidence would open up, one almost swallowing a 12 year-old boy.

Initially, most of the residents voluntarily left, with their homes being bought up by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through a re-location program.  The vacant homes were then demolished, leaving increasingly large chunks of the borough as empty lots.  However, a die-hard group refused all incentives to leave their beloved Centralia.

By 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey’s government invoked the right of Eminent Domain, which revoked the ownership of all remaining buildings and homes from the residents and condemning them.  All of the approximately 60 remaining residents were ordered to vacate their homes and leave town but some still refused to leave.

Lawsuits filed by the remaining residents occupied the next 2 decades, culminating in Governor Ed Rendell issuing a formal eviction notice to the remaining residents of Centrailia.

Then in a sudden turn of events on 31 October 2013, the remaining residents settled their lawsuit with the state government, receiving a cash payout of $349,500 and being granted permission to stay in their homes for as long as they live, after which their homes will revert to the state and be demolished.

September 24 started off as overcast and cool, but near the end of the clean-up at noon, the sun came out and warmed up the volunteers.  As I walked the streets of Centralia with the other volunteers, I found it disheartening to see so much garbage strewn about the overgrown lots where houses once stood.

When the day was done, approximately 12, 000 pounds of garbage and 32 tires were collected in 2, 30 cubic yard dumpsters which had been donated by Mostik Brothers Hauling of the neighbouring borough of Mount Carmel.

It was a bittersweet victory when you think that there is no reason why so much garbage should be illegally dumped anywhere, let alone Centralia.  Besides tires, the garbage collected included household waste, coffee cups and other beverage containers, construction waste, old children’s toys including an ET stuffie, clothing, carpeting, flower pots, a couch, televisions, baby diapers, deck wood, fish tank rocks, office supplies, newspapers, tarps, motor oil bottles, plastic containers of all sizes, cat litter boxes, and even some needles and used condoms.

Volunteers even located four live kittens (and two dead) in the bushes off Railroad Avenue.  The kittens were secured, fed and transported to a local animal shelter, but unfortunately the mother cat was not located.

Unfortunately a lot of garbage had to be left where it lay as the 2 dumpsters were no match for the amount of garbage that had to be collected.  The rest of the garbage will have to wait for another day.

Fire Chief Thomas Hynoski busied himself by operating the backhoe and front end loader to assist in picking up the trash, as well as posting signs around the borough that read, “No Dumping.  Community Cleanup Area” and advising of a $25, 000 fine for those convicted of illegal dumping.  EPCAMR will be installing trail cameras in to aid in the identification and prosecution of those illegally dumping trash in the borough.

In the end, the cost of collecting illegally dumped trash can be very expensive.  The estimate of the value of the average volunteer, according to www.independentsector.org, in Pennsylvania is $23.40/hr, so the value of the volunteer services over the 3.5 hours of the clean-up comes to $4914.  The two dumpsters donated are valued at $400 each and the value of the service provided by the backhoe and front end loader is equal to about $280, making the value of the donated services of this particular clean-up nearly $6000.  Much more would be required to clean up the rest of the trash.

Still more money was required to purchase heavy duty garbage bags, clean-up supplies and tools, hand sanitizer, first aid kits, snacks, drinks, water, and food to feed the volunteers and EPCAMR staff in attendance.  Fundraising was used to help off-set the costs of the day.

Thanks to Bobby Hughes for providing some information and photos for this article.

To read my full article on Centralia, go to www.militarybruce.com/the-town-that-was

The groups and supporters that participated were:

The volunteers who participated were:

EPCAMR-Gabby Zawacki, Michael Hewitt, Denise Hernandez, and Bobby Hughes. Volunteers…Penny Rholve, Tom Hynoski, Tyler Bluns, Mike Ligntanp, Misty Berninger, Amelia Berninger, Erika Noll, Brad Noll, Xavier Noll, Ray Sterner, Noah Wise, Michelle Stauffer, Eric Stauffer, Reagan Schlagel, Brandon Ball, Thomas J. Conniff, Alana O’Rourke, Essiglah Fisher, Melissa Joseph, McKenszie Busler, Mackenzie Mills, Amy Kathryn Beury Slusser, Amy Saraka, Kayliegh Saraka, Sue Meinz, Thomas Schatz, Holly Rusk, Jim Rusk, Dawson Hughes, Rebecca Levandowski, Palmira Gregory Miller, Donna Cariste, Shawn Hadley, Elijah C., Trishia Kinney,Kaci Grabowski, Mitchell Weed, Deedra Haven, Brian Haven, Elizabeth F. Holland, Myssa-Marie Finean, Michael G. Finegan, Anthony Holland, Dean Hooper, Charles Connell, Bruce Forsyth, Dennis Felty, Brandon Fosmire, Tom Bennett, and Adam P. Schlagel.

Read about additional Centralia clean-ups that I’ve attended:

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/the-great-american-clean-up-volunteers-clean-up-illegal-dumping-in-centralia/

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