Today's Story
A 1-point-2 million dollar effort is underway to put out a coal mine fire east of Pittsburgh. The fire has been burning for over a decade in Allegheny County's Boyce Park. As Brad Linder reports, extinguishing coal fires is a lot more complicated than simply turning on a fire hose.

The ground is burning.
A coal mine fire's been working it's way through an abandoned mine beneath Boyce Park since at least the late 1980s.
July 15, 2002

By Dan Simon

Mine fires, a legacy of Pennsylvania's industrial past, continue to burn in the Keystone State. While the 41-year-old Centralia mine fire is perhaps the best known, there are a total of 49 mine fires currently burning here.

The town of Carbondale was reported to have three separate mine fires, although one of them, the Powderly Culm Bank Fire, is believed to be out. This small community of about 10,000 people is located in the Northeastern part of the state in Lackawana County, north of Scranton, Penn.

Pennsylvania is mined for two types of coal: bituminous, a softer material found mainly to the Central and Western parts of the state, and anthracite, a harder coal found mainly in the Northeast. The state supplies about 6.7 percent of all U.S. coal production and is home to 97 percent of the country's anthracite coal reserves.

In 1995, 8.7 million tons of anthracite and 60.8 million tons of bituminous coal were mined here, employing more than 10,000 people. The $1.5 billion earned in direct coal sales represents about one percent of the state's gross economic product. Yet the state's coal mining legacy has left current residents with a litany of environmental problems.

More than 2,400 miles of the state's 54,000 miles of streams are polluted by acid mine drainage. There are also more than 1,200 open portals and vertical shafts. Abandoned mine shafts can pose a threat to adventurous children and pets. There are also approximately 200,000 acres of land throughout Pennsylvania that are prone to 'subsidence,' a type of shifting in the ground caused when mines collapse, that can crack homes' foundations, redirect streams and more. So far the state and federal government have combined to spend more than $635 million on abandoned mine problems, with an estimated $15 billion still needed to be spent on reclamation efforts.

Pennsylvania is currently the site of 94 percent of the remaining underground mine fires in the United States according to information from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation. It's also home to 90 percent of the country's mine related hazardous and explosive gas problems and half of its hazardous water bodies.

One bright spot is advances in surface mining techniques that enable the coal industry to go back and reclaim abandoned mine sites by re-mining them. These projects currently make up about a quarter of all acres being mined today. More the 2,514 acres of such abandoned mines were reclaimed in 1996 alone by the private sector.

Additional story
More on mine fires.

Columbia County, Penn. Historical site
A site providing historical information.

PA State Dept. of Mines
Provides a listing of mine fires and dates

PA Department of Environmental Protection
Coal mining's legacy in Pennsylvania

Susquehanna University School of Natural Sciences
Information about mine fires

Radio Story Transcript
Read Brad's story

The Environmental Reporter is a partnership of and WHYY Radio, which makes all reports available to public radio stations throughout Pennsylvania.