Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
3 Environmental contamination, community transformation, and the Centralia mine fire
Stephen R. Couch
Centralia: A dependent town
The Centralia mine fire
A stage model of industrial contamination
An underground coalmine fire has been burning since 1962 in the small Pennsylvania community of Centralia. Between 1981 and 1992, severe social conflict about the fire disrupted the town and most of its one thousand inhabitants left, taking advantage of a voluntary relocation programme supported by the US Government. Today, only a relative handful (58) remain and soon they, too, are likely to depart as the result of a state government order. The final disposition of their homes will probably be decided by litigation.
At first glance, Centralia does not appear to fit the image of a typical toxic contamination disaster such as the one that affected Minamata, Japan. No one has died; claims of direct health damage have not been proven; there is no corporation to hold responsible. But, like Minamata and Love Canal, Times Beach, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and other places, Centralia has partaken of what Kai Erikson calls a "new species of trouble" (Erikson 1991). Intense intracommunity conflict has taken place, conflict which ripped apart the bonds of communality and civility and tore at the very basis of the social fabric that binds people together. Unlike the "therapeutic community," which often aids recovery from natural disasters (Raphael 1986: 297-298), the "conflictual community" that developed in Centralia hinders the resolution of environmental contamination problems and stalls recovery. Moreover, the experience of this kind of destructive conflict changes for ever the ways in which people view their communities and their world.
Fig. 3.1 Location of Centralia
Centralia: A dependent town
Centralia is located in the north-eastern United States, among the northern ranges of the Appalachian Mountains (fig. 3.1). A coalmining town from the beginning, it was settled in the late 1850s and 1860s by immigrants from Ireland, and later by people from Eastern and Southern Europe. By the latter part of the nineteenth century it had become a company town, with the Lehigh Valley Coal Company as its dominant institution. Agents of this New York-based firm made most decisions of importance.
Economically and socially, Centralia went through "boom" and "bust" periods during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The borough's population rose and fell in step with the demand for coal. In 1870, 1,342 residents lived there; two decades later, the population had risen to 2,761, only to fall to 2,048 by 1900 (Geschwindt 1984). The instability and upheaval brought about by these population shifts hampered the development of strong community institutions. As in other towns of Pennsylvania's anthracite region, "Community ties were weak.... The population... was too mobile, too transient, too quickly gathered and easily scattered again" (Bertoff 1965: 263).
In Centralia, the coal companies made their political and economic influence felt at all levels. Since locally elected officials often sided with the miners against the corporations, the companies worked to reduce local government power (Aurand 1971: 23-24). Communities resembled medieval fiefs (Auand 1971: 21), with even the most powerful police forces being company run (Couch 1984). A colonial analogy is even more apt: the anthracite region was peripheral to core areas along the eastern seaboard (cf. Nyden 1979: Gonzales-Casanova 1965; Hechter 1975). Coal and profits flowed out of the region to build distant cities, civic institutions, and urban upper classes. As Baltzell (1958: 118) remarked: "If Proper Philadelphia can be said to be the capital of an empire, then its chief colony is the anthracite... region of northeastern Pennsylvania." Conversely, an upper class was missing throughout the anthracite region, and agents of the coal companies were the most influential members of the weak local middle class. Therefore, coalmining communities like Centralia lacked a tradition of collective decision-making in their own interests, a fact that continues to inhibit their responses to crises.
Residents were not entirely pawns of the coal companies. They took collective action in the form of strikes and trade union activity but the companies successfully resisted union organizing throughout the nineteenth century. A boatman's strike occurred on the Schuylkill Canal as early as 1835 (Schalek and Henning 1907: 158). Anthracite miners struck for the first time in 1842, dispersing only when the militia was called in (History of Schuylkill County 1881). The first organized miners' union appeared in Schuylkill County in 1848 (Eavenson 1942). Violent mine and railroad strikes occurred in 1869, 1871, 1877, 1897, 1900, and 1902 (Aurand 1971: 72, 80-81, 91-92, 106, 110-114, 129130,138-142). Centralia workers participated in many of these strikes, as well as some local strikes of their own.
While helping to solidify a class culture of distrust toward the coal companies, the strikes and union activities failed to create a strong internal political structure in Centralia (Homrighaus, Couch, and Kroll-Smith 1985). When the coal companies finally recognized the United Mine Workers' Union as a legitimate bargaining agent (1902), relative labour peace settled over the area. The Union might have become a seed-bed of stronger, more durable, community institutions had it not been for the decline of "King Coal." Beginning in the 1920s, and especially in the 1950s when alternative fuels became popular, anthracite coal production declined precipitously. By 1960, very little active mining was taking place in the area, and Centralia's population had declined to around 1,435 (Geschwindt 1984). At that time, the borough was home to a largely working-class population that included a high percentage of elderly persons. Though small, the population was at least stable. Many people had lived in Centralia all their lives and displayed a strong, sentimental (even nostalgic) attachment to the town. Most residents thought of it as a pleasant, tranquil place.
But Centralia was economically and politically weak; it lacked a firm economic base because new businesses were not keen to locate in a declining one-industry economy. Gradually it became a backwater, out of step with the economic needs of the time, peripheral to the larger society beyond the mountains. Some of its population developed the kind of fatalism Henry Caudill found in other areas of Appalachia (Caudill 1963) - a fatalism born of a long history of being first exploited and then ignored by outsiders. Many developed a suspicious attitude toward the activities of large corporations and often viewed the institutions of government in a similar light.
The Centralia mine fire
The story of the Centralia mine fire began in 1962, when fire was discovered just outside the borough in an abandoned strip mine used as an illegal garbage dump (fig. 3.2). After initial fire-fighting efforts failed, the blaze ignited an outcropping of coal and spread under the town by way of abandoned mine shafts and tunnels. Slowly but inexorably, about one-third of Centralia was directly affected by fires, an area locally known as the "impact zone."
Despite the prominence of coal companies in the town's past, the fire was not due to corporate malfeasance, because there was no active mining where the fire started. Moreover, while coal companies generally kept ownership of subsurface mineral rights throughout the anthracite region, Centralia was an exception - the borough had acquired these rights early in the twentieth century. Therefore, the responsibility for extinguishing or containing the fire fell to various branches of government.
Between 1962 and 1980, a number of engineering projects were undertaken in an attempt to deal with the fire, but all attempts failed. Thereafter, some people began to express concern about the fire's potential health and safety effects. In 1969, three families were evacuated from their homes owing to the presence of poisonous gases. In 1976, supralethal concentrations of carbon monoxide were found pouring from a borehole within 27 feet of another Centralia home. Three years later, a service station was ordered to close because of rising gasoline temperatures in its underground storage tanks. Then, in 1970, the federal government purchased seven properties considered to be unsafe; others followed. More and more residents complained of physical illnesses that they attributed to the fire. Some, however, regarded such complaints as overreaction.
Fig. 3.2 Origin of the Centralia mine fire
Indeed, the community was divided over the seriousness of the fire. Some residents, mostly in the "impact zone," viewed it as a dangerous and imminent threat that necessitated strong and swift action to protect residents. These people were also more likely to have children living at home and less likely to have lived in Centralia all their lives. Others, while feeling threatened, saw the fire as a distant hazard. Still others believed there was "no problem," that people were becoming concerned without good reason. According to such a view, coal-related hazards and disasters add an important element to local culture (Wallace 1981). The "disaster subculture" of the region integrated the mine fire into a normative response: people might not like it, but they would have to bear it! Moreover, many of those who had lived in Centralia for all or most of their lives felt a very strong attachment to their homes and land, making them reluctant even to consider the possibility of relocation due to hazard.
These different interpretations nourished a conflict that was just barely contained within the normal political system. The way was prepared for emergence of insurgent grass-roots groups on different sides of the issue. All that was needed was a dramatic event to illustrate that existing political institutions were unable to prevent a real calamity. That event took place on 12 February 1981, when a 12-year-old boy noticed a hole opening in the ground. As he approached it, the void widened and he fell in. Fortunately, the boy was able to hold onto a tree root until pulled to safety by a cousin. Confidence in the local political system had been dealt a grievous blow; it eroded away completely a few weeks later when an elderly man narrowly avoided death after being overcome by carbon monoxide in his home.
These two near-death incidents spurred a portion of the community to organize Concerned Citizens Against the Centralia Mine Fire. The Concerned Citizens were convinced that the fire posed a real and imminent danger to people who lived in the impact zone. By means of letter-writing campaigns, trips to the state and national capitols, and various marches and demonstrations, the Concerned Citizens urged government leaders to do whatever was necessary to protect residents from the fire, even if that meant relocation.
Concerned Citizens immediately sought and received the assistance of national environmental interest groups, including Rural American Women. From such organizations they learned the techniques of direct political action. Centralia was featured in reports by national news media and government officials began to take greater notice of its plight. But the confrontational tactics of Concerned Citizens did not meet with the approval of many fellow citizens in Centralia. The latter believed that publicity was a ploy to force the government to buy homes and relocate their occupants. To these people, the spectre of relocation was more frightening than the fire, because it portended destruction of the community they loved more surely than an uncertain fire.
The outcome of these differences was a two-year period of intense intracommunity conflict. Town meetings ended in shouting or fist fights. Telephone threats were made, car tyres slashed, and at least one fire-bombing occurred. Many neighbours - and even some family members - no longer spoke to one another. The atmosphere of the period was graphically recounted by one resident:
Centralia is like someone you know who is dying of cancer; I mean, every time you turn around there is another part of the town that's infected. If we would get together we could fight this cancer. But people around here are more concerned with themselves than with their neighbors. Rumors, hostileness, prejudice, backbiting... this town's more sick than the fire. (KrollSmith and Couch 1990: 5)
The breakdown of communality in Centralia illustrates an important point. Direct action may be helpful in moving a larger political system to act on the grievances of a particular community. At the same time, it may be extremely divisive within the community, sapping some of the strength that would be available for a response to the problem that threatens. Time and again, representatives of the state and federal governments asked Centralians to come to some kind of agreement about what they wanted the government to do. That consensus never developed: government agencies and leaders were left to deal with several factions, each with its own proposed solutions to the problem.
Finally, in July 1983, a government-financed engineering study concluded that the fire was much worse than anyone had thought. Then burning under about 200 acres of land, it had the potential to spread under 3,700 acres, including all of the borough of Centralia. Swiftly, the US Congress passed a bill that authorized US$42 million to pay for the voluntary relocation of residents and businesses. This action opened a wider split in the community. On one side, a grassroots Homeowners' Association formed to help residents get a fair settlement price from the government. But an opposing group, the Citizens to Save Our Borough, also formed, with the objective of keeping Centralia a viable corporate community.
Voluntary relocation began in early 1984 amid an atmosphere of tense coexistence between the contending groups. It also took place out of the spotlight of the mass media because neither group actively sought to attract their attention. Most Centralians who chose relocation were pleased with their financial settlements. As agreements were reached with government agencies, families moved, mainly to other communities within the region, near where friends and relatives lived. One by one the vacated homes were boarded up and then demolished. Grass and trees were planted on the empty building lots but they became expensive to maintain and were eventually replaced by wild flowers. Each year during the late spring and summer, Centralia displayed a tranquil and colourful mantle that belied the fire below. Meanwhile, nothing further was done about the mine fire itself.
By 1991, all who wanted to relocate had gone, leaving 58 people who wished to remain. Many of those had been active in Citizens to Save the Borough and had now become leaders of Centralia's normal political structure. In their new role they sought to maintain Centralia's viability despite the handicaps of a tiny population, virtually no local tax revenue, and diminished social services. At least now they could act with the full backing of their community, for those who remained in Centralia shared both a common experience and a common outlook on the future. They would stay and accept the consequences!
In early 1992, however, their efforts received a severe setback when state agencies ordered the remaining citizens to depart. Residents were given one final opportunity to participate in the long-standing relocation plan, with the alternative of having their property seized by the government under its power of eminent domain. At the time of writing, Centralia's remaining citizens are engaged in a legal battle to prevent the state-mandated extinction of their depleted town.
The Centralia case presents an instructive example of social devastation wrought by a chronic technological disaster (Couch and Kroll-Smith 1985). In this case, different interpretations of the environmental threat led to severe intracommunity conflict and fragmentation. As a consequence, the social community died long before most of the physical community of Centralia was relocated. As Mitchell (ch. 1) suggests, the experience of many modern industrial disasters is one of "surprise." Here the victims were not surprised by the mine fire; they were astonished by the unsympathetic, hostile, and divisive reactions of their neighbours. This was the unprecedented aspect of their disaster. About the only thing most Centralians agree upon is that they have received a "dirty deal" from the government that was supposed to protect them; this heightened their alienation and diminished their ability to cope with the problems facing them (Couch and Kroll-Smith 1991).
A stage model of industrial contamination
What is it about the experience of industrial contamination that results in such destructive social and psychological consequences? In addition to some of the case-specific factors mentioned above, recent research highlights a number of more general factors, including the psychological and emotional experience of contamination itself (Couch and Kroll-Smith 1985; Erikson 1991; Kroll-Smith and Couch 1991), the assignment of blame (Baum 1987: 38-41; Baum, Fleming, and Davidson 1983; Couch and Kroll-Smith 1985; Davidson and Baum 1991; Gill 1986; Levine 1982), problems of technical controllability (Berren, Biegel, and Ghertner 1980; Couch and KrollSmith 1992), ambiguity of cause and effect (Brown 1991; Kasperson and Pijawka 1985; Kroll-Smith and Couch 1990; Vyner 1988), and social stigma (Edelstein 1988, 1991; Reich 1983).
Another factor that deserves close attention is time (Baum, Fleming, and Singer 1983; Couch and Kroll-Smith 1985; Gill 1986; Shrivastava 1987). Industrial contamination extends over a long period, and therefore the stages of industrial contamination disasters differ in some very important ways from those that accompany natural disasters. Using the Centralia mine fire as an illustrative case, I propose a stage model for industrial contamination, a model that helps to explain the social breakdown that generally occurs in these situations and that has important implications for long-term recovery.
Let us begin by considering the stage model for natural disasters, as it has been presented in the disaster literature (Chapman 1962) (see fig. 3.3). This model begins with the "warning" stage, the apprehension that calamity may be approaching. By the time a "threat" stage emerges, there are unequivocal signs of impending trouble. During "impact," the threat becomes a reality, generating a maelstrom of flying debris, or raging floods, or towering walls of fire, ripping apart the last vestiges of "business as usual" in the full force of nature's wrath. During the "inventory" and "rescue" stages, survivors begin to assess their losses and gradually piece together a picture of what has happened. Survivor groups emerge spontaneously to help treat the wounded, extinguish fires, or free trapped victims. With the onset of a "remedy" stage, outside agencies take control and impose a formal structure on the inventory and rescue activities. During the "recovery," there is a reconstitution of the old community structure, sometimes with a modified pattern of personal and collective life.
Note that, in this stage model, the interval between warning and rescue may be very brief - in some cases, only several minutes. Also note that the customary sequence of stages in a natural disaster moves from order, to chaos, to the reconstitution of order. In addition, the signs of danger and destruction are relatively clear - there is a high level of agreement over what is taking place or has taken place. In this conceptualization, there is little trouble in placing a disaster situation at an appropriate disaster stage.
Fig. 3.3 Stage model
Industrial contamination disasters differ significantly from this model. Cases such as Centralia and Minamata involve a protracted, seemingly endless, period between warnings of possible danger and the belief that the worst is past. Indeed, people become trapped in the warning, threat, and impact stages, frozen in extended periods of apprehension and dread. Moreover, since the experience of contamination rarely involves an entire neighbourhood or community in the same way, it is not likely to become the occasion for communal action, or even for agreement about what stage the disaster is at. Multiple interpretations abound; here is the fertile soil for intense community conflict. And that conflict results in alienation, coping difficulties, and psychological distress for individuals, and social breakdown for communities (cf. Kroll-Smith and Couch 1990). In these circumstances, recovery - if it occurs at all - is likely to be very slow and incomplete.
Let us look in more detail at the stage model for contamination cases. And let us extend the model a little (see table 3.1). First, note that placing a disaster situation at a certain stage is a matter of defining what is going on - it is a "definitional model." The definitional function becomes especially important in industrial contamination cases, where the definition of which stage a disaster is at often becomes a major bone of contention.
Table 3.1 Contamination stage model
before event occurs or is known
before event occurs or is known
event not seen as problem
problem seen as private trouble
signs of potential danger
issue contained within normal channels
danger seen as imminent
local groups active
extra-local groups active
The "warning," "threat," and "impact" stages of industrial contamination disasters are similar to those of natural disasters. I have added a "no problem" stage in order to reflect the views of people who contend that contamination either does not exist or, if it does exist, poses no problem. I have also added a "pre-event" stage, representing a community's history before the contamination occurs or is discovered. This is an important addition because the precontamination structure and culture of a community affect its subsequent response (Kroll-Smith and Couch 1990:13-28).
Because responses to industrial contamination are inherently political, I suggest that political stages overlie the (definitional) disaster stages. These political stages interact with the definitional stages in a complex web of changing social and political relationships. Such interactions shape the nature of conflict, the situation's outcome, and the possibility and nature of recovery.
In a recent book, Michael Reich fruitfully applies and extends a tripartite political stage model to the analysis of three toxic contamination cases. Reich deals in detail with how each stage differs in its implications for the political dynamics of the toxic disaster (Reich 1991). I have adapted Reich's three stages for use in my model. Here, the "non-issue" stage occurs when the problem is seen as a private trouble, not a public issue; the "public issue" stage begins when local activist groups become active; and the "political issue" stage occurs when interest groups from outside the community become involved in the struggle.
I have also added two newly identified stages. The "pre-issue" stage, like the "pre-event" stage, refers to the time before contamination occurs or is known. During this period, existing political structures and power relations set the stage for what will happen after contamination is discovered. The "contained issue" stage recognizes that an issue may be contained within normal political structures or institutions. Here, the issue has entered the political arena but has not led to the formation of emergent groups or the arrival of outside interest groups. Rather, the issue is being dealt with through "normal channels." Conflict may occur, and may be very intense, but the legitimacy of the public decision-making system is not questioned. Individuals and groups remain working within the system, rather than going outside or beyond it.
The nature of existing groups and political structures determines which political stage a given contamination situation will occupy, but there is no way of predicting when and how change to another stage will take place; that is governed by the dynamics of an individual controversy. Adding to the complexity, indeed the messiness, of contamination situations is that there is no obvious, dramatic "high point" of destruction, after which recovery begins. Rather, the community addresses itself to both the contamination problem and the recovery from its effects, simultaneously. This means that the kinds of social and political conflicts generally found during the recovery stage of a natural disaster are overlain by other conflicts that stem from the need to deal with continuing and substantial threats to life and health.
If there is no single "high point" in contamination disasters there is often a series of signal events - mini-disasters - that help to shape both definitions and political conflicts. For example, the discovery of a cancer cluster or a pattern of recurrent respiratory illnesses in a given population may persuade some residents that a contamination problem is more urgent and serious than previously thought, thus spurring them to new levels of action. But even signal events signal different things to different people: respiratory illnesses may be perceived as being due to the weather or a bad season for allergies; a cancer cluster may be judged to be due to coincidence or to a study's poor scientific methodology. Thus, signal events tend to shift conflict to new levels of intensity rather than to eliminate it.
Table 3.2 Centralia mine fire: Political stages
|First home built
|Boom-bust economy; violent coal and railroad strikes
|Coal production declines
|Coal production drops drastically
|Coal fire discovered in garbage dump
|Fire control efforts fail; fire has increasing human impacts
|Boy falls in subsidence; elderly man overcome by carbon monoxide in home
|Emergent groups form; severe community conflict
|Study leads to voluntary relocation plan
|Voluntary relocation takes place; 35 families elect to stay
|Borough Council fights to maintain Centralia
|Voluntary relocation ended; 58 people remain
|State orders Centralians to relocate; borough hires lawyer to try to remain in town
Let us briefly illustrate how Centralia can be viewed through the lens of the modified stage model (table 3.2). In this case, the time before the mine fire began in 1962 is the "pre-event/pre-issue" stage. During this period, Centralia's peripheral location and status as a declining coal town meant that it was not the sort of place to attract much attention from the world beyond its borders. Between 1962 and 1981, the mine fire can be categorized as a politically "contained" issue. Various outlays of public money were devoted to securing a technical solution to the problem. Definitional differences arose during these years. Originally, most residents believed the fire to be "no problem" or a "warning." However, as time passed, many defined the fire as a "threat" or as having a detrimental "impact," thereby increasing the probability that severe intracommunity conflict would develop.
As long as the issue was contained within the normal political structure, the potential severity of the conflict resulting from definitional differences remained unrecognized. But with the two neardeath "signal events" of early 1981, the situation changed drastically. In quick succession, grass-roots groups formed and outside interest group aid was sought and received; a "political issue" stage had arrived. Group formation and participation in direct action crystallized people's perceptions into one of the four definitional stages, thus making compromise and understanding more difficult and increasing the likelihood of conflict.
In 1984, the federally financed voluntary relocation plan got under way and began to seal the fate of Centralia. Sensing that the major decisions about the town's future had been made, national interest groups withdrew from involvement, and the Centralia case became a "public issue." Limited intracommunity conflict continued between the two remaining interest groups, but both of them sought to achieve some kind of settlement with the government rather than fighting each other.
With the end of voluntary relocation and the demise of the grassroots interest groups, the mine fire once again became a "contained issue." Elected representatives of the borough's remaining population labelled the fire a non-problem and used official channels and resources to maintain the viability of their small community. Most recently, this has involved litigation in the face of the state's determination that the entire community must be abandoned because of fire-related dangers.
The stage model that is proposed helps to raise awareness of the social processes that occur in contamination situations. We can imagine a matrix in which different combinations of definitional and political stages result in different social responses. I will not attempt to develop a comprehensive list of propositions concerning responses here. However, the following are illustrative:
If definitional differences are modest and the issue is "contained," conflict is likely between different factions and the government, but not at the community level itself.
If definitional differences are great and the issue is "contained," there will be pressure for local emergent groups to form, moving the issue to the "public" stage.
If definitional differences are great and the issue becomes "public" (i.e. with local emergent groups), intracommunity conflict is very likely.
If definitional differences are great and outside interest groups become involved (i.e. the issue is "political"), intracommunity conflict is most likely to develop and be severe.
If most in a community agree that the issue belongs to one definitional stage, intracommunity conflict will be minimal, regardless of the issue's political stage.
To the extent that a strong faction in a community defines the issue as a "threat" or as having an "impact," it is likely to escalate toward "political issue" status, especially if there is no quick solution.
This brief account of Centralia's experience illustrates the importance of the time dimension in contamination cases.
Unlike communities that are affected by natural disaster, contaminated communities become stuck in the "warning/threat/impact" stages. They are forced to confront a seemingly endless prospect of chronic apprehension and dread.
Different people and groups interpret the situation differently over time (i.e. define the problem as being at different stages); this sows the seeds of intense and destructive intracommunity conflict, making recovery of the social community difficult, if not impossible.
Disagreements over the definition of the situation take place within a political context; that context itself moves in and out of different political stages that shape the nature of the conflict and the outcomes.
While chronic in nature, signal events do occur in contamination cases, but they are interpreted differently by different factions, tending to intensify rather than ameliorate the conflict.
Recovery and emergency responses must take place simultaneously. This complicates recovery considerably.
This last point is particularly insidious. Modern society puts great faith in achieving technological solutions to its problems. Our customary response tends to be: "If it's broken, fix it; if it's contaminated, clean it; if it's burning, douse it." Clearly, the government agencies involved in Centralia defined the problem as technological, not social, in nature - as an engineering puzzle rather than a human problem (Couch and Kroll-Smith 1992). How to stop the fire was a dominant issue, whereas how to keep the community from unravelling was not. By focusing on technological failure, the question of blame was made central - whose fault is it that no technological solution has worked? Thus, the government set itself up to be blamed; it focused on technological problems which often (perhaps usually) cannot be solved, while it ignored human problems that may be able to be solved if attended to promptly and intelligently. The result was that Centralians displayed a high level of disillusion and mistrust of government. This is an outlook that is widely shared by residents of contaminated communities everywhere. It may be that high levels of alienation and mistrust in industrial contamination cases are also linked with high levels of psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, somaticism, paranoid ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Couch and Kroll-Smith 1991; Couch, Kroll-Smith, and Wilson 1992).
In fact, concern over the controllability of contamination may call into question the very viability of recovery. This is very different from most cases of natural disaster, where recovery is assumed to be possible, albeit perhaps after the expenditure of much time, effort, and money. With contamination, even the possibility of recovery may be open to doubt, placing decisions about the community's viability squarely in the political arena. The intensity of intracommunity conflict in Centralia was partly caused by the high stakes as defined by the parties involved. For some, relocation was necessary in order to assure health and safety. But relocation meant the death of the community, something others fought vehemently against.
In the long run there are two main outcomes or "final stages" of identified industrial contamination situations. The first is relocation people are moved away from the problem (see fig. 3.4). Personal safety is recovered, but at the loss of the community and of a certain geographical area or resource. The second category is the "techfix" - a technological solution is adopted that renders the community safe again and allows community-wide recovery to proceed (see fig. 3.5). Unfortunately, reliable technological solutions to contamination may not exist and are certain to be surrounded by disagreements about their adequacy. As a result, the problem is redefined as a "controversy" and there is a reversion to one of the model's other political stages. In other words, the battle goes on.
Fig. 3.4 Relocation
Fig. 3.5 Techfix
Centralia provides an example of a failed "techfix" that was followed by relocation. After trying to implement a "techfix" for nearly two decades, the government relocated most of the population but allowed those who defined the situation as "not dangerous" to remain. In the end, however, the government decided that a "techfix" to protect the remaining residents was not practical or financially feasible and it attempted to force relocation of the remaining residents.
In this regard it is interesting to contrast Centralia with Love Canal. The latter contamination case in New York State provided an example of relocation first, followed by a "techfix." Residents living near that toxic waste disposal site were first relocated, then remediation efforts got under way. Finally, most of the affected area was officially declared safe for habitation. Subsequently, some new residents moved into the neighbourhood. But many others disagreed with the government's contention that Love Canal was safe, and controversy continues over the adequacy of the "techfix".
In light of the history of Centralia and other contaminated communities it is clear that - unlike places affected by natural disasters such communities rarely experience "amplified rebound" (disproportionately fast and altruistic recovery) after the event (Fritz 1961). In fact. even the concept of "recovery" is problematical. Recovery implies the regaining of something that was lost. At least on the community level, this seldom happens with industrial contamination. Social change is just too great, to talk of recovery in this sense. What happens is more akin to a transformation - a major change to something new, not a return to what had been. After a contamination disaster, people come to hold a very different view of the world, their community, and the roles played by various social institutions. New cultural norms develop that help people deal with the ongoing uncertainty that attends the breakdown of their physical and social environments. New community power structures are born and may become institutionalized. In some cases, such as Minamata, communities survive but in radically altered states. And in some cases, like Centralia, communities die.
Contents - Previous - Next