Home to many active and abandoned mines, Pennsylvania is dotted with coal and coal refuse which can catch fire and burn for extended periods of time. Work is currently underway to put out a coal fire in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Brad Linder has more.

Exeter Coal Fire
A pile of coal refuse in Exeter, PA has been burning since at least December, but efforts are underway to extinguish the flames before too much damage can be done.
February 28, 2002

Pennsylvania's most famous coal fire is in Centralia. For decades, a fire has been burning through an abandoned mine under Centralia, releasing toxic fumes, and forcing almost all of the town's residents to relocate. If a coal fire is not put out soon after it is discovered, it can often be cheaper to let it burn out than to put it out. Today, there are a number of mine fires still active in the state, along with surface coal fires. Dave Philbin is an engineer with the Federal Office of Surface Mining, or OSM, in Wilkes-Barre. He says coal refuse piles, or culm banks, are common in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

"What happened years ago was you had all these collieries [coal mining operations] working around here," says Philbin. "And when they mined the coal underground,they brought it up to the surface, processed it, and in the processing, anywhere from maybe 15% - 35% of that material that came out of the ground was waste. It has a coal value, but not the coal value that solid coal has. They leave it on the ground, try to put it into a big pile."

Philbin says some time before December, a culm bank in the township of Exeter, Pennsylvania, caught fire. OSM is working with a local contractor to isolate the fire and put it out. But putting out a coal fire is more complicated than extinguishing a burning building, says Philbin.

"The fire companies aren't really equipped to do this because you need large equipment. The depth of this fire is like fifty feet. A fire company wouldn't be able to put it out. And once it gets in this bank material, you have to cut it off."

Philbin says the fire can burn below the surface of the pile, making it difficult to find In fact, during the daytime it's hard to see the fire at all, even though some areas of the culm bank are burning as hot as 1250 degrees Fahrenheit. He says the most important thing to do once a fire is found is to separate it from other flammable material.

The Office of Surface Mining is working with local contractor PoppleConstruction to dig trenches around the three-acre area on fire, and pump water in from nearby wells. The process can take months, but left unattended the coal could burn for years.

The Exeter culm bank is 110 acres around, and just a few hundred yards away from houses. Karen Szwast is the founder of the Hicks Creek Watershed Association, representing environmental concerns for area neighbors. She says seeing, and sometimes smelling, the gas coming from the fire had a lot of people worried.

"I think originally people were concerned about, 'Could it be another Centralia?' They didn't know it was a culm bank fire, and not a mine fire," says Szwast. "They do realize that this could happen again. Most of the residents or the people who come back here feel that it was done by maybe a campfire, some kids back here, and what's to stop that from happening again? They are concerned about that."

Szwast says the land is privately owned, but undeveloped, and therefore attractive to kids who might not realize how dangerous the culm bank can be. With the fire separated from the rest of the bank, there's not much chance of it spreading to the homes, but there are still toxic fumes being released. Dave Philbin says OSM is testing for hazardous gasses on-site, but doesn't estimate much risk away from the fire.

Popple Foreman Armand Cencetti says air quality is more of an issue for his construction crews.

"I have a CL detector, that measures CO [carbon monoxide] on site. Where they're actually working now, the levels are a little higher, so machines are fitted with oxygen tanks and respirator masks. So they could go in high zones of it and it's not going to affect them. They're protected."

Cencetti says it's hard to estimate how long the job will take, but it is going faster than expected. Once the entire culm bank is brought to manageable temperatures the crew will level off the land and even seed some trees. But Dave Philbin says taking a month to carefully extinguish the coal is far safer than leaving it be, or even just isolating the fire.

"We had a fire up in Mayfield, a little town in Lackawanna County," Philbin says. "We're not sure if it's out yet. We're not sure if it's out yet, but it seems to be out because we don't see any smoke coming out of it. It burned for ten years after they cut it off."

Philbin says that means for ten years neighbors had to put up with a sulfur smell in the air, and the threat of toxic fumes -- although he says those fumes dissipate easily unless weather patterns force them to stay in place.

Karen Szwast says the Exeter fire serves as a reminder to residents of the environmental concerns of the land. She says it's important to increase public awareness, so that future fires might be prevented.

Additional Story
Dave Philbin and Karen Szwast say the damage could have been more extreme if the fire had spread.

Additional Soundbite
Karen Szwast says some nearby homes would have been at risk if the fire had gone unchecked.

Is an informative web site about the impact of a mine fire in Centralia, PA.

Photo Essay of Centralia, PA
by Myke Scholtes

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