The Words of Judith K. Witherow  
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HELL WILL NEVER FREEZE OVER


From an early age I had intimate knowledge of coal mines and abandoned mine shafts. Many of my family members lived in coal towns: places where you worked for a coal company, rented your home from the owners, bought what you needed from their stores, and used what little remained from your paycheck for survival.

Mines no longer productive became places where water trickled out to form streams that were used for everything life required. In the mountains everything was put to use. Questioning the harm much of this might cause didnít happen until decades later.

Iíve had a theory for years that the incidence of incurable illnesses occurring in our small town werenít a coincidence. I discussed this belief with my neurologist. He asked if I could give him the names and addresses of everyone with immune system diseases from my earlier residence. Later on he had me go to the National Institute of Health for countless tests. At no time was I given any information on what they had discovered. When I went there I was being treated for multiple sclerosis. Within a few years I was also diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematous-SLE. The diseases have continued, but the same canít be said of any ongoing research as to why the beautiful mountains are still poisoning its people.

Throughout the years, Iíve told my partner Sue, countless stories of what life was like in coal country. For some reason she has a keen interest in the people and places scattered amongst the Appalachians. Weíve visited many of the towns and its inhabitants. Whenever she reads about a place of interest we inevitably visit it to take photographs and talk to people who sound a lot like me.

A little over a year ago she read about a town in eastern Pennsylvania. It was a nearly abandoned coal town with an underground fire that had been burning since May of 1962. The townís name is Centralia, PA. The fire was carelessly started over an open seam of anthracite coal. At the time it was thought the fire had been extinguished. However, it merely continued burning underground.

In July of 1962 the Department of Environmental Resources began to investigate the continued burning underneath the town. They didnít move anyone out of Centralia until May, 1969. At that time their attempt at control was to move three families from the area.

The attempts at containment were mind-maulingly slow to say the least. In 1980 the U.S. Bureau of Mines determined the mine fire was still burning. Still burning? Yep, still burning, and the next bright bulb idea was to relocate twenty-seven more families. Money was paid to the families. The price was less than fair, but at least more people were now out of harms way.

In 1983 the fire was burning under approximately 350 acres. By 1991, the fire had expanded by at least another three fourths in area width. It was estimated that in another one hundred years its width would be 3,700 acres. No number was assumed about what depth would be reached in that same amount of time.

Pennsylvania has the dubious record of having the largest number of underground coal fires in the United States. Some of these anthracite coal fires have been ablaze for upwards of forty years. Itís incredulous they excrete an unbelievable amounts of carbon dioxide. Add to this one gas, numerous other gases, and we canít even begin to understand the level of pollutants steadily entering the atmosphere. These mines arenít even a part of the toxins steadily taxing the earth from automobile and other carbon emissions.

In April of 2007 we visited Centralia for the first time. It was appalling to look at the burnt trees above ground and the remaining houses that were being held up by bricks mortared to the rooftop. There was the stench of toxic fumes everywhere we walked. The fear of collapsing ground didnít bother either of us for some reason. Wasnít I used to these areas? It was the same vein of coal that had always run through my veins. The fact of how it had poisoned my entire system seemed of little consequence. Why it had no effect on Sue was a different matter. This wasnít her background.

We went to another close-by town, Ashland, PA, and decided to ride a coal car down one of the underground coal tunnels. Closed in 1931, in 1962 it was repaired and reopened as a museum out of respect for past coal miners. It was re-timbered and everything was returned to its former state. The tunnel went 1800 feet into the Mahanoy Mountain. You traveled with great speed down the restored tracks. Along the way you saw seams of coal, heavy timbers that held up the tunnel under the mountain, and various fossils. I saw a carbide lamp that matched one I bought years earlier as a token of familial identification. Donít ever believe that hell is hot. The further underground you go the colder it gets! They werenít handing out coats before the trip started as a joke. I thought Iíd freeze my behind to the boards before the trip ended. Iíve been in many types of caves but this was not one of them.

Not once did it occur to me that we might be near an area that could collapse without warning. My thoughts were on the destruction I had observed above ground, but somehow that didnít seem within reach. That way of thinking is what has brought Mother Earth closer to the edge of her demise. My guilt hangs heavily as I write about my acceptance.

In October of 2008 Sue and I decided to make a return trip to Centralia. We wanted to see if there had been any improvement. We also wanted to arrive in the early morning so smoke from any fires would be more visible when we photographed the area.

If we were looking for improvement this wasnít the place to search. The gases filled the air so strongly that I was having trouble catching my breath. We tried to stay as close to each other as possible. This wasnít a place you wanted to take lightly and allow a cave in to swallow up one of us. Walking on the crusted ground was akin to the feeling of being sucked in at any given time. There was so much more destruction that even if there werenít gases present it would still pull the air out of your throat. I saw an old 8 track tape lying on the ground with the names of the songs scorched off. For some reason I thought to myself ďIíll bet they were all songs of dying or leaving.Ē This place was destroying a part of me that I didnít want to lose. It was time to leave.

Sue wanted to walk back a blacktop road to see if the asphalt had separated further than it had the previous year. I stayed behind because my legs were not strong enough to walk as far as she wanted to, and my slow pace would have slowed her down.

When she returned to the car we looked through the digital camera window at the photos of the road. The asphalt was truly separated by more than space. It showed that we didnít need to come back a third time. Everything had escalated at a rate that didnít need our personal documentation. We had the impression that we would be swallowed like the town. It was more than enough to scare those wanting to view this inferno for themselves.

Itís said the coal burning underground contributes to global warming more than all vehicles using gas. If money were spent trying to eliminate these fires, a solution might be discovered. Instead we use our monies to fight disasters that can be seen. If there were a way to view what is going on underground, it might scare the earthís inhabitants enough to force the powers that be to quench the fires burning beneath our feet.

Donít assume that Pennsylvania is the only coal rich area that is sending fossil fuels into the atmosphere. This is a disaster of worldwide proportion. A fire has been burning underground in Australiaís Burning Mountain Nature Preserve for at least 2,000 years and probably thousands of years longer.

Known fires are also burning in Indonesia, India and China as well as other countries. There are possibly fires without number burning all around the world, but there have been scant resources or money used to develop the technology to protect the environment or to stop what may very well be too late to stop.

LOOK FOR WORK BY AND ABOUT JUDITH IN THESE BOOKS AND MAGAZINES

 

Strong Enough to Bend

 

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