May 12, 2023 - One cool, rainy day in May 2022, Rob Manch and Kaylee Lindenmuth decided to search for the coal mine fire themselves. They chose a Sunday, when both were off from their jobs at WFMZ-TV 69 News, a TV station based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
The reported fire was located about three miles to the east of the near-ghost town of Centralia. Lindenmuth – then a photojournalist for WFMZ – brought her handheld DSLR camera. She and Manch, a reporter at the station, plugged the GPS coordinates they had for the fire location into Google Maps. The coordinates, according to Manch, showed them it was “in the middle of nowhere.”
In sneakers, Lindenmuth and Manch navigated as best they could around giant mud puddles and terrain that was seldom passed over. The hike through overgrown plants and loose rocks – though difficult – was nothing new to Lindenmuth. Born and raised in the Schuylkill County borough of Shenandoah, Lindenmuth grew up hiking with her family in the region’s coal lands.
The two colleagues followed a power line right of way and ended up on an old coal haul road. After about 40 minutes of walking through abandoned mine lands, they arrived at their destination.
“It looked like the mountain was on fire,” Lindenmuth said. “The whole mountain was smoking.”
In February, 69 News published Manch’s “Burning Coal Country,” a four-part series on the underground fire he and Lindenmuth tracked down in Schuylkill County. The multi-layered series aimed to answer questions around the fire that’s been burning for at least 19 years, what the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is doing about it, and concerns of it possibly spreading to homes in the area.
Manch was tipped off about the underground fire from Lindenmuth, who had obtained information about it from a right-to-know request she filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The report Lindenmuth received confirmed the fire’s existence: In state documents it’s referred to as the “Girardville North II” fire.
“I just kind of wanted to see if there was anything to it,” Lindenmuth said.
Abandoned mine reclamation – the act of addressing hazards and environmental degradation posed by legacy coal mines in order to return mined lands to a beneficial use – is an issue Lindenmuth deeply cares about. She said her sister and brother lost their father to an abandoned mine site nearly a decade ago, and a close friend’s cousin died at an abandoned mine site in 1993. “It’s also my job,” Lindenmuth said. “Regardless of if I lived here or not, it’s still my job as a journalist to look out for the concerns of the community and that sort of thing.”
When Lindenmuth and Manch first tracked down the “Girardville North II” fire, she was reminded of another famous fire: the historic Centralia mine fire, which has been burning since at least May 27, 1962 and has led to most of the town being abandoned.
“This (fire) was what Centralia used to look like, how much smoke there used to be,” Lindenmuth said.
Lindenmuth has since left WFMZ-TV to return to her own local news website, the Shenandoah Sentinel. After she and Manch did some field work, the footage sat idle for a while, until Jenny McCain, another photojournalist and video editor at WMFZ-TV, completed the project with Manch.
McCain said there was so much footage that it made sense to break it into four separate stories. She said it was a true team effort to put the series together, including drone footage shot by her boss, Ethan Walthier.
“Burning Coal Country” blends reporting, archival photos, and interviews with a historian and a geologist. “??I learned a lot more about coal than anyone ever needs to learn about coal,” Manch quipped with a laugh.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection responded to Manch’s inquiries about the fire, saying it’s monitoring it and that it had “no evidence at this time that the Centralia Mine Fire and the one north of Girardville in Schuylkill County are connected.” Manch and Lindenmuth learned that it was first discovered in 2004 by a mining company called Blaschak Coal. But the Pennsylvania DEP couldn’t answer how far-reaching the underground fire currently is.
Over the course of his reporting, Manch also visited the closest neighborhood to the Girardville fire, a community called Raven Run.
“We talked to a few people who live up there. It’s a real quiet little neighborhood, and nobody knew anything about this fire,” the reporter said. One of the residents interviewd for the series, Victor Mearini, said he learned about the fire from Manch and expressed concern that his neighborhood could suffer the same fate as the residents near the Centralia mine fire.
Though Manch didn’t put a lot about the Centralia mine fire in the series, he told Poynter that he thought of Todd Domboski, who was 12 when he made national headlines in 1981 after falling into a cavernous sinkhole opened by that fire. According to Manch, that incident spurred action and evacuations from the area.
“Are we going to wait until Raven Run becomes the next Centralia – until a kid falls in a hole?” Manch said. Since the Pennsylvania DEP hadn’t investigated how far underground this new fire is, he added, no one will know until something like that happens again.
There are over a dozen active mine fires throughout the state of Pennsylvania. Manch says he recognizes that the one he highlighted in his investigation is on abandoned mine land and not currently a direct threat to any homes.
“??But I wanted to highlight it because this is something that affects our viewers. It directly affects them,” he said. “Towns like Shenandoah and Centralia tend to get forgotten in the state, and in the national discourse, too. And someone’s gotta be their voice, right? Someone’s got to talk about things that affect them.”