WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (CN) - With help from a law office, Pennsylvania and a county redevelopment agency abused their condemnation powers to help a coal company get its hands on billions of dollars worth of coal deposits, the Borough of Centralia and its citizens say in a federal class action. Centralia claims the conspirators used the pretext of an underground fire to make a land grab: a gross abuse of their powers of eminent domain.
"The original government pretense, if indeed it was ever legitimate, has long since expired," the complaint states. "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." (Parentheses in complaint.)
"These defendants covet billions of dollars worth of extremely valuable anthracite coal which lies beneath the surface of the Borough of 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 continues: "Plaintiffs allege that their rights are being violated by abusive government officials and entities, in concert with private persons, and that they have been exploited by the defendants to accomplish their unlawful ends. The persistent efforts of this private/government enterprise have resulted in a massive and continuing fraud reflective of both civil and criminal RICO violations. Perhaps the most succinct characterization of this process is expressed in the wisdom of the Hon. Scott Naus of the Court of Common Pleas of Columbia County when he obviously questioned, through the choice of his words, the basis for the suspicious rush to judgment by individuals and government entities who were purportedly seeking to respond to the dangers of a fire that has never materialized as a threat to Centralia. The fire has never been investigated. No court has ever held a hearing to determine whether the fire is, or ever was, a threat to the Borough or these plaintiffs. Despite pervasive conflicts in the 'evidence' of the alleged 'threat' posed by the fires, and the additional evidence of questionable political rationales, the fire that has never reached, and will never reach, Centralia has been allowed to act as an engine of private aggrandizement resulting in the unlawful denigration of citizens' rights."
The class claims that hundreds of fires occur in Pennsylvania abandoned mines, particularly the anthracite coal mining region in and around northeast Pennsylvania. The so-called "Centralia Mine Fire" started in 1962 in an abandoned coal stripping pit that Centralia used as a trash dump.
The class adds that any evidence that the fire actually endangered Centralia was "contrived," and that "no court has ever held a hearing to determine whether the fire is, or ever was, a threat," that "certainly it does not threaten Centralia now and is retreating at its worst."
The class claims the defendants - including the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority and the Rosenn Jenkins and Greenwald law office - used the underground fire as a pretext for a "massive fraud designed to acquire access to the coal under the condemned area."
The class claims the Borough owns all the coal beneath it and the defendants cannot get their hands on the coal unless Centralia ceases to exist.