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."
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
"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
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."
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.