Mine Fire Exodus May Leave PA County Liable

     (CN) – Pennsylvanians can pursue claims that a mining town exploited a harmless underground fire to drive out residents and let a coal company make billions, a federal judge ruled.
     The Borough of Centralia in Columbia County, Pa., implemented a voluntary relocation program after it failed for over two decades to extinguish an underground mine fire discovered in 1962.
     As an agent of the Department of Community Affairs, the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority (CCRA) carried out the plan by initiating eminent domain proceedings against property owners who did not take part in the relocation efforts.
     The CCRA filed declarations of taking against these properties in 1993.
     Objecting families alleged the entities lacked the power or right to acquire their homes. They sued the authorities in October 2010, claiming that the fire never posed a threat to their health or safety, but was instead meant to justify removing all residents from the land under which the fire burned.
     They said Pennsylvania intended to allow access to billions of dollars worth of coal that Blaschak Coal Corp. could then mine.
     The amended complaint alleges violations of the plaintiffs’ due process, equal protection and First Amendment rights.
     In April, U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann dismissed claims against the state Department of Community and Economic Development and its spokesman, Stephen Fishman; Rosenn Jenkins and Greenwald LLP and attorneys Gary Taroli and John T. Zelinka; and Blaschak. Only one claim was preserved: that department secretary, Alan Walker, and the CCRA violated plaintiff John Koschoff’s equal protection rights.
     The court held that the CCRA is not immune from suit under either the 11th Amendment or the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.
     Judge Brann refused to reconsider July 24, finding that, the CCRA is a “state actor” under the Municipal Authorities Act of 1945, it is
     “While the Municipal Authorities Act of 1945 was repealed and rewritten in 2001, the controlling statute continues to define a ‘municipal authority’ as ‘the body or board authorized by law to enact ordinances or adopt resolutions for the particular municipality’ and includes those authorities which were created under the Municipal Authorities Act of 1945,” Brann wrote. “In this case, that municipality is Columbia County and the pertinent authority is the CCRA. As such, CCRA is specifically granted the power, inter alia, of eminent domain and to sue and be sued.”
     Though the CCRA is a municipal authority, it is not a “state” immune from suit, the judgment states.
     “CCRA claims that the court’s acknowledgment that defendant is a ‘state actor for purposes of § 1983 liability’ serves to confirm its immunity from suit as a state under the 11th Amendment,” Brann wrote. “Defendant confuses what it means to be a ‘state actor’ subject to liability under § 1983 and who is a state entity for 11th Amendment purposes. The two are not co-extensive. Indeed, they could not be or no party could ever be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.”

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