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The Real Disaster is Above Ground An exposition and critical analysis

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Posted: May 6, 2015

by Alanna Kaiser

It is no secret that natural disasters have profound impacts on communities. The scale and scope of these effects vary greatly, and even more so when the disaster that a community has to face is man-made and spans out over time as a technological hazard. The specific, extreme, negative environmental and interpersonal effects that this type of situation can have were perfectly exemplified, beginning in 1962, in a small town in coal-country Pennsylvania: Centralia. In the book, The Real Disaster is Above Ground: A Mine Fire & Social Conflict, written by J. Stephen Kroll-Smith and Stephen Robert Couch, the impacts of a chronic mine fire, burning under the town of Centralia from 1962 to the present day, are examined at length. In the coming pages, The Real Disaster and it's impact on scholarly discourse about community sociology will be dissected.

To understand the impact that research about the mine fire in Centralia can have, one must first understand the town in geographic and historical context, as well as the mine fire itself. According to The Real Disaster is Above Ground, Centralia was conceived as an anthracite-mining town in 1855, and was largely influenced and controlled by King Coal. The influence that the coal industry had on the town not only shaped its economy, but also determined the types of communal organization methods that were common there. Since the population of the town fluctuated with the nation's demand for coal, many members of early Centralia were transient. These constant fluctuations in population discouraged the formation of strong community ties from the beginning. Instead, community members organized and associated themselves with smaller groups within the community, such as family units and religious groups. Early Centralia was further driven apart by the presence of the "coal and iron police" and radical groups like the Molly Maguires that promoted violence and a general sense of distrust in the community.

This general disassociation within the community was only compounded by the sub-par economic status of the community. As soon as the nation's demand for coal ceased, most of Centralia's income stopped flowing, and even when the demand was high, profits often flowed directly out of the community to the large corporations that capitalized on the town's ideal mining resources. Furthermore, Coal corporations had so much economic and political control over Centralia that their presence discouraged local citizens from becoming civically engaged or connected to decisions that were being made in their community. Based on its geographic and historical context, Centralia may have always been destined to fail if ever faced with an extremely divisive issue.

Unfortunately, that issue befell the community in May 1962 when an illegal garbage dump caught on fire, and lead to the combustion of a nearby piece of the Buck Mountain coal vein. The small blaze spread underground, and thus began the process of trying to understand and extinguish the mine fire that burned under Centralia for more than 20 years. Up until 1983 when community members were finally given the option of government-funded relocation, multiple organizations played a role in trying to mitigate the fire and its consequences. Amongst these organizations were local, state, and federal government bodies, private technical firms, non-profit groups, action groups, and various grassroots organizations from the town of Centralia itself.

Although the fire undoubtedly had significant environmental and health impacts, the authors of The Real Disaster is Above Ground argue that the mine fire had the most significant effects on the community itself. The fire was the impetus for the disintegration of many facets of life in Centralia. Kroll-Smith and Couch's study of Centralia focused exclusively on data concerning the effects that the continuous blaze had on community interactions and the fate of Centralia as a community unit.

To collect this data and information for The Real Disaster, Kroll-Smith and Couch engaged in participatory research. To attempt to reserve some bit of impartiality and detachment from the community during this research, Couch assumed the role of the outside observer, analyzing documents, procedures, and evidence from a distance and not directly entrenching himself in daily life in Centralia. Meanwhile, Kroll-Smith took on the role of field researcher, and spent a period of eight months in 1983 living amongst the community, attending meetings, and observing from a very inside position all of the happenings surrounding the mine fire, including all of the community group meetings that he was permitted to attend. Both researchers recognized that their interaction with and study of Centralia would undoubtedly be slightly problematic in the way that they would inevitably become part of their own data once community members were aware of their research intentions. Unfortunately, in a participatory study like this one, this phenomenon is unavoidable. Furthermore, Kroll-Smith in particular had to grapple with the moral dilemma of withholding data from community members that could provide insight into their predicaments. Ultimately, he decided to only release the sociological data if it would be a positive and productive addition to the community's quest for resolving or making sense of the fire. In this way, the researchers minimized their own impacts on the data.

Additionally, Kroll-Smith and Couch operated under three guiding assumptions when analyzing and presenting their data. These three assumptions are as follows: 1) "Human social life must be viewed in an ecological context, as an integral part of the ecological system (p. 8)," 2) "A community's social and cultural history shapes its ability to respond to the events and forces that challenge it (p. 9)," And 3) "Community is not only part of an ecological system but also of a larger social system with which it interacts constantly" (p. 10). These assumptions structured all of the arguments made throughout the book.

Throughout The Real Disaster is Above Ground, Kroll-Smith and Couch examined the effects of the mine fire on the community. Specifically, they trace how the mine fire's social implications lead to the disintegration of the community, and ultimately the disbandment of Centralia itself. The driving force behind the fate of Centralia was the lack of community cohesion throughout the mine fire saga. From the beginning, only very weak community ties existed. As the issue of the mine fire started heating up, however, even more divisions began to form amongst the people of Centralia. The most notable of these divides was the fissure between cold-side residents and hot-side residents, or residents living on the north and south ends of town, respectively. Residents on the south end of town were considered to be in the middle of, or very close to the zone impacted by the fire, known as the "hot" zone. Conversely, residents on the north side of town were far removed from the impact zone, and lived their lives in the "cold" zone.

Residents from opposing sides interpreted the posed risks of the fire very differently according to their proximity to the impact zone. Obviously residents closer to the impact zone were typically much more concerned about the health effects of the gasses released from the mines and the potential for subsidences, potential cave-ins occurring above overextracted, hot coal veins. While the mine fire may have had vast effects on the daily lives of hot side residents, it was not uncommon for a cold side resident to write off the fire as merely a feature of Centralia, unimportant and over dramatized by many. Cold side residents favored preserving Centralia as they knew it, rather than addressing possible problems posed by the enigmatic fire, and often thought that hot side residents were causing a fuss simply to get compensation or the funds to abandon the town and relocate from the government. This particular disconnect between residents of the small town fueled all of the problems that community groups and members faced when interacting with one another.

The opposition between hot-siders and cold-siders was internalized in all of the community organizations that formed to address the problem of the mine fire. The first group to form to address the problem was a group of people calling themselves the Concerned Citizens (CC) in 1981. This group was comprised almost entirely by residents of the impact zone, and was seen as extremely radical and combative by most other members of the community. The CC alienated many members of Centralia and quickly fell out of favor with the general populous.

Being the first community action group to form, the CC set the precedent for other groups that would follow. Community members continued to react negatively to other groups that were formed, such as the United Centralia Area Mine Fire Task Force, Citizens to Save Byrnesville, Citizens to Save the Borough, and the Centralia Input Task Force, among others. Each of these groups was biased in their own way, and tended to alienate community members with views different than their own. Because of this, none of them was entirely successful in accomplishing its individual goals or forming a consensus about action steps necessary to stop the fire or placate the citizens.

Additionally, meetings hosted by these organizations and others that tried to form community consensus or action about the fire tended to be largely unsuccessful. These meetings typically lacked agendas, time limits, and skilled facilitators. Kroll-Smith and Couch only recognized one organization, the Centralia Committee on Human Development (CCHD), as maintaining a truly non-partisan view in the issue of the mine fire. Of all the groups that were formed, CCHD seemed to be the most successful in their meetings and their actions. Meetings were kept orderly by establishing ground rules and time limits, providing agendas, and staying neutral on the topic of the fire. Facilitation and leadership roles were shared among all members each week as they presented the actions they took since the last gathering of the committee, giving everyone a greater stake in the meetings. However, despite their apparent effectiveness, the CCHD was still largely rejected by community members who recalled the biased failures that the CC and other groups had been. Despite some mild successes, they did not come anywhere close to meeting their full potential as a community driven organization because they could not overcome the divisive barriers that were already present in Centralia.

The issues posed by the divisions amongst these grassroots organizations were compounded by the attitude of the Borough Council. This locally appointed group existed before the fire started and attempted to control Centralia by itself. They resented the devolution of any power to other organizations or groups. Kroll-Smith and Couch seemed to present this group as being at best, uncooperative, and at worst, megalomaniacs ignoring their community's problems in order to sustain their own political careers. This attitude was exemplified when, after the CCHD requested to draw up a contract to ensure that the Council shared information gleaned from consulting a private engineering firm about the mine fire, the Council responded to their request by saying, "'We're the elected authority in the town. Why should we have to sign contracts with people from our own town," and refused to sign the contract (p. 145). The Borough Council clashed with many, if not all grassroots organizations that were formed in Centralia.

Kroll-Smith and Couch explored this extreme divisiveness between different individuals and groups within the community throughout their study. Ultimately, they attributed the breakdown to the fact that the mine fire was a chronic issue, not an isolated event. As it is explained in The Real Disaster is Above Ground, "the social breakdown reflected not the shortcomings of individuals, but rather the severe demands that a chronic technological disaster places on a social system" (p. 158). A technological disaster is one that is ongoing and manmade, as opposed to a natural disaster like a tornado or hurricane where the disaster itself recedes and the effects are blatantly evident. In the case of the mine fire, people could not agree on a course of action or a common feeling toward the fire because the supposed harmful effects of the fire were invisible gasses. Inconsistent reports of the scope and danger posed by these gasses only further solidified the skeptics' opinions that the threat of gasses was minimal. The state of Centralia during the mine fire was thoroughly consistent with prior research that Kroll-Smith and Couch had done about chronic technological disasters in the way that the effects of the mine fire overwhelmed existing organizations and pitted newly forming ones against each other.

With this information, Kroll-Smith and Couch intended to "place the Centralia study within a broader comparative context that [could] serve as a guide to emergency response planners, [policymakers,] and to future researchers on the sociology of long-term humanly produced disasters" (159). Following the publication of The Real Disaster is Above Ground, many academic articles written about disaster management have cited, and continue to cite Kroll-Smith and Couch's findings in Centralia in their own disaster and hazard analysis, even years after the initial research was completed. For example, the book serves as a framework to describe the effects that a technical disaster can have on a community in the article, "Disaster, Litigation, and the Corrosive Community" (Picou, Marshall, and Gill, 2004). Kroll-Smith and Couch's research has also been applied to handling specific technological disasters, such as the BP Oil Spill. The Real Disaster was cited in an article titled, "The BP Catastrophe and Sociological Practice Mitigating Community Impacts through Peer-Listener Training" (Picou, 2011). The span of time that Kroll-Smith and Couch's research has remained valid should be an indication of the quality and absolute relevance of the book.

In 1983, the Office of Surface Mining made it common knowledge that cold-side residents may soon find themselves living in an expanded impact zone. This was the final straw for residents of both sides. In a demonstration of a final, "ultimate irony," hot and cold side residents came to their first agreement: A majority decision that specified that they wanted out. As Kroll-Smith and Couch put it, "For many Centralians, the quality of life had so deteriorated that relocating to another community was viewed as a problem-solving behavior" (p. 142). Within months, a $42 million dollar appropriation was raised by the government to provide for the relocation of residents, and so began the exodus from Centralia.

Today, Centralia stands as a smoking, bleak reminder of what a lack of cohesion in the face of a disaster can do to a community. Only seven homeowners remain in Centralia, and they all maintain that the mine fire still poses no threat to their health or safety. Despite the fact that Centralia's zip code has been revoked, and most of the town is demolished, these seven people and anyone living with them were granted permission by the government to continue living on the land until the end of their lives. After these people die, however, Centralia will be no more (Beauge, 2013).

In my opinion, and also likely the opinions of Kroll-Smith and Couch, Centralia is a perfect example of what not to do for a community in peril. This book is a wonderful read for anyone even vaguely interested in community sociology or the full story of Centralia, but it also serves as a well-researched, reliable text for researchers and policy makers that may be looking for a case study to reference in their endeavors handling disasters of their own. If people are aware of the common reactions to man-made hazards, such as those reactions of the citizens of Centralia to the mine fire, perhaps they will be able to alter the course of their own actions to avoid the disintegration of their own communities. Undoubtedly, as technological disasters become increasingly common in today's ever-modernizing world, the situation presented in The Real Disaster is Above Ground will continue to hold relevance.

Works Cited

Beauge, John. "Remaining Handful of Residents Can Stay in Centralia for the Rest of their Lives, Settlement Says." Penn Live. Patriot News, 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.

Gunter, Valerie, and Steve Kroll-Smith. Volatile Places: A Sociology of Communities and Environmental Controversies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2007. Print.

Kroll-Smith, J. Stephen, and Stephen Robert Couch. The Real Disaster is Above Ground: A Mine Fire & Social Conflict. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1990. Print.

Picou, J. Steven. "The BP Catastrophe and Sociological Practice Mitigating Community Impacts Through Peer-Listener Training." Journal of Applied Social Science 5.1 (2011): 1-12. SAGE Journals Online. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

Picou, J. Steven, Brent K. Marshall, and Duane A. Gill. "Disaster, Litigation, and the Corrosive Community." Social Forces 82.4 (2004): 1493-522. JSTOR. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.

Stephen Couch Named Interim Chancellor at Penn State Schuylkill. Penn State Schuylkill. Pennsylvania State University, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

"Steve Couch." LinkedIn. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

"Steve Kroll-Smith." Sage. Sage Publications, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.