LAUREL RUN – Almost half a century ago an entire section of the borough was abandoned, and Mary Yuknavich remembers it well.
Taking a drive along Northampton Street up Giants Despair on Friday, the longtime Wilkes-Barre Township Council member points out where a store, a church and a lumber yard once were, where residential streets used to be and the site where the last two houses stood. Now it’s all woods and debris, and. dotted throughout the landscape, are cracks in the ground that emit hot, moist vapors. Those vapors are the few telltale signs of what caused the desertion – a mine fire that’s been simmering for almost 100 years. It’s exactly what Yuknavich fears could happen to her adjacent community if a Wilkes-Barre Township businessman is allowed to strip mine roughly 40 acres along the township’s border with Laurel Run. Michael Corgan, who owns a contracting business in the township and a company that supplies fill in Laurel Run, holds a permit from the state to strip mine the land. According to Yuknavich, Corgan attempted to obtain approval from Laurel Run to mine in 1992, but was thwarted by community outcry. He’s trying again now, she says, because his permit expires this year. Corgan did not respond to messages for comment left at his office. For Yuknavich, Wilkes-Barre Township Mayor Carl Kuren and many township residents, the concern is that blasting and other mining operations will open air shafts down to the fire, which has been kept suppressed for decades by an isolating barrier. “The only problem is if he opens that up, it’s like adding kerosene to a fire,” Yuknavich said. The fire caused part of Laurel Run to be abandoned because toxic gases would seep through cracks in buildings, causing health concerns, according to Susan Franks, who is involved in the Wilkes-Barre Township Citizens Coalition for a Safe Environment against the project. She said a resolution was passed by the county commissioners in 1975 to forbid future mining in Wilkes-Barre Township and Laurel Run because of the threat of exacerbating the fire. Residents have complained at both Wilkes-Barre Township and Laurel Run municipal meetings and to DEP about allowing strip mining there. Kuren warned that if the fire is stoked, it could move down the valley toward Wilkes-Barre, the Wachovia Arena and other destinations. But that is all overreaction, according to Mark Carmon, the regional spokesman for DEP. “You make it sound like some kind of a horror movie. Is there a need to look at what blasting might influence? Certainly. But is it going to threaten the valley? No, that’s not even in the realm of possibility,” he said. “The coal doesn’t follow that kind of a straight path down the valley to the river … Things aren’t that simple.” Corgan’s permit, he said, includes various provisions regarding the mine fire, including that he must maintain 120 feet between his operations and the fire below. He will also have to install more sand and pillar barriers and bore holes to monitor the fire, Carmon said. Corgan has many obstacles to overcome yet, Carmon said, including receiving local approval, installing the barriers and engineering how mining can be done without disturbing the fire. “You’re talking about a small piece of property that could cause him financial and local hardships,” he said. “It’s so speculative, I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.” “No has ever strip mined on an active mine fire, so no one knows what will happen,” Franks said. “It’s not the kind of thing we’re out to get someone or keep them from using their property … but this is an extreme case. … We just can’t take the chance that he’s going to disturb something that might be keeping it (the fire) at bay.” The fire isn’t all that concerns Kuren, who would like to see townhouses and a community-living facility for the elderly to be built on land adjacent to the potential mine site. Developers, he said, would balk if the view is ruined. “I’ve had one of them tell me already, ‘If there’s a stripping there, we’re not interested,’ ” Kuren said.
Rory Sweeney, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 970-7418.