ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- Residents of a Central Pennsylvania coal town decimated by a mine fire have gone to federal court trying to prevent state officials from evicting them from their homes.
Centralia's few remaining residents lodged a civil rights complaint against the state Department of Community and Economic Development and other defendants, alleging a conspiracy to steal the mineral rights to billions of dollars worth of anthracite coal.
The residents asked a federal judge Friday for an injunction that would bar the state from proceeding with eminent domain while their lawsuit, filed earlier this week, is heard.
Most of Centralia was demolished in the 1980s after the slow-burning fire that began in 1962 at the town dump spread to the underground network of coal mines, threatening residents with poisoning gases and dangerous sinkholes.
Only a handful of people remain, resisting the state's efforts to get them to leave.
Plaintiffs' attorney Don Bailey said Friday that the fire no longer poses a threat to the town, if it ever did.
The defendants "want [Centralia] to cease to exist because as long as the borough is there, they can't mine under it. The whole thing, we think, is a massive fraud," he said.
Department of Community and Economic Development spokeswoman Jamie Yates declined to comment on the suit but noted that courts have previously acknowledged that "condemnation requirements are being met." Steve Fishman, a department attorney named in the suit, previously has dismissed the residents as conspiracy theorists.
The suit asserts that because the borough owns the rights to the coal beneath it, the fire was used as a "pretext to justify the removal of all the residents of the borough, and, as such, to extinguish the borough" so that "billions of dollars worth of coal ... could be mined." A "cursory examination" of Centralia's geology and water table reveals the fire could never have reached the town, court papers said.
Besides the state agency, the defendants include a law firm, a coal company and the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority.
Similar claims were made in a state court petition earlier this year. A Commonwealth Court judge tossed the petition on jurisdictional and procedural grounds.
More than 1,000 residents left and more than 500 homes were knocked down in a 1980s government relocation program that largely was completed by 1993, when officials invoked eminent domain. Most of the dozens of holdouts left. The state only recently moved to oust those who remain.