Remaining holdouts in burning town reach settlement; Tale of Centralia, Pa. noted in film and fiction

By Jon Campisi | Nov 1, 2013

A handful of residents who have refused to leave Centralia, the central

Pennsylvania town that has literally been burning for decades, will be allowed to remain in their homes until their respective deaths, according to a settlement reached in a civil case between the homeowners and state officials.

Court records and media reports show that a settlement has been reached between the remaining Centralia residents and the remaining defendants in the case, which originally included the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, Blaschak Coal Corp., and the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development, among others.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Don Bailey made the court aware of the settlement in an Oct. 28 letter to U.S. District Judge William Brann, of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, which is where the litigation commenced in the fall of 2010.

On Wednesday, the judge officially dismissed the case with prejudice, the docket shows.

Centralia sits in Columbia County, which is the county just west of Luzerne, home to Scranton.

The now-infamous fire began in 1962 in an abandoned coal-stripping pit in neighboring Conyngham Township that was used by Centralia Borough as a refuse dump. It caused more than 1,000 people to flee by the end of the 1980s.

The residents were able to move thanks to a $42 million federal relocation program.

Some, however, refused to leave their homes, arguing that the structures were still habitable, unlike others that had to be demolished.

The Patriot-News of Harrisburg quoted Steve Kratz, a spokesman for the Department of Community and Economic Development, as saying the plaintiffs in the case would be receiving a total of $218,000 for their properties as part of the agreement, which also allows the residents to remain in their homes until they die.

“We’re glad we were able to resolve this in an amicable way,” Kratz said, according to the Patriot-News.

The Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, at the behest of state officials, began voluntary relocation of residents in 1983, the year before Congress gave the $42 million toward relocation, the paper reported.

Most property owners accepted the voluntary buyouts, but the seven plaintiffs in the litigation refused to leave their homes.

The plaintiffs included Borough Council President Stephen Hynoski and members of his family.

The Patriot-News reported that earlier this year, Brann, the judge overseeing the case, dismissed some plaintiffs from the litigation because their claims were time-barred, and that he dismissed as defendants the Department of Community and Economic Development, a DCED attorney, the firm of Rosenn Jenkins & Greenwald, two of the firm’s lawyers, and Blaschak Coal Corp.

The county’s redevelopment authority and DCED Secretary C. Alan Walker remained the only defendants until the settlement announcement.

Those initially named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Bonnie Hynoski, Stephen Hynoski, Christine Hynoski, Tom Hynoski, Helen Hynoski, Walter Hynoski, John Koschoff, the Borough of Centralia and Harold Mervine, executor of the estate of Lamar Mervine, Jr. and Lana Mervine.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 27, 2010, at federal court in Harrisburg,  said that the defendants in the case “covet billions of dollars worth of extremely valuable anthracite coal” that lies beneath Centralia.

“These persons and entities, by and through political connections and the manipulation of governmental agencies and entities, are, among other things, illegally taking the property of the plaintiffs through the unlawful use of government police power,” the complaint read.

The suit went on to state that the “original government pretense, if indeed it was ever legitimate, has long since expired.

“In short, the purported ‘Centralia Mine Fire’ which allegedly threatened the Borough of Centralia no longer provides, or never did provide, a viable explanation for the application of government power (exercise of eminent domain) and the taking of these American citizens’ property,” the lawsuit stated.

The lawsuit, in addition to alleging Fourteenth Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection violations, claimed that the defendants retaliated against the plaintiffs because they chose to resist condemnation proceedings that they felt to be not only baseless, but that were applied to the plaintiffs unequally when compared to other citizens.

“The plaintiffs herein have been categorically and expressly denied any opportunity to enjoy a life estate, let alone having their real property taken from them by fraudulent means,” the suit stated.

Throughout the years, the story of Centralia trickled into popular culture, with the town, in which smoke can still be seen rising from the asphalt, reportedly serving as the inspiration for the film adaptation of the video game Silent Hill.

Horror and suspense author Dean Koontz also has said that Centralia’s tale was the inspiration for Strange Highways, the title piece of a short-story collection of the same name that Koontz released in the mid-1990s.

A professional biography says that Koontz is a Pennsylvania native who previously worked as an English teacher in a suburban Harrisburg school district.

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