From Courthouse News Service
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.
The class claims the fraud was carried out by Rosenn, Jenkins and Greenwald on behalf of it client, co-defendant Blaschak Coal Co., in corporation with government entities and individuals, including Rosenn, Jenkins attorneys John Zelinka and Gary Taroli, and Steven Fishman, spokesman and counsel for the defendant state Department of Community and Economic Development.
Rosenn, Jenkins has represented various predecessors in interest of Blaschak, which have asserted rights to the coal since the 1980s, the class says. Blaschak has significant holdings in the condemned area, including roughly 52.8 acres of surface rights in Centralia.
The class claims that any “examination of the applicable maps showing the geology and water table in the area would demonstrate that the ‘Centralia Mine Fire’ would never, and could never reach Centralia.”
They say that the state and county agencies claim to be protecting Centralia through the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Act from the “alleged raging presence of an oncoming fire, but there is no evidence to support the position that the fire presented a real and present unabatable hazard to any of the residents.”
The class adds: “Plaintiffs believe and aver that sometime during the course of the efforts to extinguish the fires that a plan was hatched among and between RJG, Nogard, Blaschak, and their principals to use the fire as a pretext to justify the removal of all the residents of the Borough, and, as such, to extinguish the Borough, so that access to billions of dollars worth of coal under the Borough of Centralia and Conyngham Township could be mined. Plaintiffs further believe and aver that this conspiracy also involved a number of local and state public officials, and other private persons, all of whose identities are not yet known, but will be developed through discovery.”
They add: “(T)he 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 Rosenn, Jenkins knew about the tremendous coal vein 20 years after the “Centralia Mine Fire” began, but before the class knew the coal existed, when it made a claim to the subsurface mineral rights under Centralia in 1981, while representing the Nogard Coal Co.
In 1983, the class says, the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines Office of Surface Mining “issued a report trumpeting the dangers” of what it called the “Centralia Mine Fire.”
That same year the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, as agent for the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs, “started a voluntary relocation effort for the citizens of Centralia Borough, although the fire is believed to never have existed under the Borough.”
The class claims that citizens of Centralia agreed to settlements because they felt threatened – but they felt threatened because they had been misled about the fire and were unaware of the coal deposits beneath them.
Four hundred of approximately 465 properties were transferred through a “voluntary program,” leaving owners of roughly 60 properties to face formal eminent domain proceedings – all of which were filed in the Columbia County Court of Common Pleas in 1993.
Never in any proceedings was the basis or necessity for the use of eminent domain in Centralia ever explained, the class claims.
As “irrefutable evidence” that the defendants knew there was no real threat from the fire, even as they bought out the residents of the borough, the class says that Blaschak “built a warehouse for mining activities literally right across the Borough line in or around 2004, within the purported fire impact area. Upon information and belief, this facility is to be a hub for mining activity in the Borough after it ceases to exist.”
They add that this “reflected the inside track that RJG’s clients had on manipulating the condemnation issues.”
The class claims that Rosenn, Jenkins and its clients bought them out on the cheap, because they were “feeling threatened, and being misled about the dangers of the fire.”
The complaint continues: “None of these were aware of the incredible value of the coal beneath them nor that there were plans to acquire the coal and mine in the Borough, although the approximate $90,000 amount received by a former Centralia mayor for her property, an amount believed to be far in excess of the values offered to other residents, suggests that persons other than the named defendants, all additionally to be determined through discovery, were complicit in the scheme.”
The class claims their property has been illegally taken through unlawful use of government police power and exercise of eminent domain. It seeks injunctive relief and punitive damages for conspiracy, fraud, civil and criminal misconduct, violations of due process and equal protection, punitive damages.
The class is represented by Don Bailey of Harrisburg
You can find a PDF copy of the filings at the bottom of the story posted on The Courthouse News Website