Forward Thinking

Centralia Research Sheds Light on Gulf Oil Spill

Research in the area of the Centralia, Pa., mine fire provides insights into the possible impacts of the Gulf Coast oil spill.

A town that comes with a warning to visitors might sound like something out of a horror movie—the last chance for the unsuspecting teen partygoer to turn back. But for the people who remain in Centralia, Pa., this is what welcomes them home each day. Despite the poisonous gases and sink holes created by the underground mine fire burning beneath their feet, some residents are fighting to stay in their hometown, and have been for years. Centralia had 1,435 residents in 1962, when the mine fire erupted, but only a handful remain today.

Professor of Biology Tammy Tobin, a molecular biologist who studies bacteria that live in extreme coal-mining environments, performs research in Centralia. She believes the fire could burn more than 1,500 acres and continue to burn for more than a century. “When the mine fire in Centralia first ignited,” Tobin says, “nobody imagined that it would burn so far and for so long, nor that it would take an entire town with it.”

Tobin believes an uncertain future may also await the Gulf Coast as a result of the BP oil spill. “An unknown amount of oil still remains deep in the water, and its ultimate impact, whether it remains in the deep ocean or washes back up on shore, remains to be seen.”

Disasters such as Centralia and the Gulf Coast oil spill naturally affect biological processes within ecosystems, and it takes time to understand the extent of their impact. But there is hope, even in a forbidden land like Centralia, where life seems to carry on in spite of itself. There is, in fact, potential for unearthing a rare, new thermophilic (heat-loving) bacterial species. These species are particularly rare in North America, and a couple of them might produce new bio-products for human or environmental use.

Likewise, Tobin says, bacteria near the oil spill may feed off the oil to sustain itself. Other living organisms, such as birds, fish and marine mammals, can’t do that. They will only survive, she says, if time and money are spent to rescue the animals and repair their environment.  

Contributing writers to The ‘Grove section are Audrey Carroll ‘12; Karen Jones, assistant director of media relations; Victoria Kidd and Megan McDermott ‘14.

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