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Pa. Attempts to Stope Coal Fire

July 11, 2002

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PLUM, Pa. (AP) _ A stubborn coal-mine fire that has been burning here for at least four decades is slowly, but surely, approaching natural gas wells east of Pittsburgh. Its lingering advance has the state trying to extinguish the fire for the first time in 13 years.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said the fire in the abandoned Plum Creek mine is about 800 feet from the closest gas well, but poses no imminent danger. Officials don’t know how the fire started.

``The fire has been a real slow mover and we’re not concerned about a fire and explosion,″ said Steve Jones, chief of the department’s division of mine hazards. ``But it will burn over to that area and that’s something we don’t want to happen.″

The fire, one of 49 mine fires the state is currently monitoring, has advanced about 200 feet in the last eight years, Jones said.

After purchasing the land 40 years ago, Allegheny County sealed off the mine, believing the fire would be extinguished.

In 1989, workers at what is now called Boyce Park noticed smoke coming from the ground, evidence that a second attempt in 1979 to snuff out the flames had failed.

The state has contracted with a private company, Earthmovers Unlimited Inc., to dig a 1,200-foot trench to stop the advance of the fire, remove the earth over the mine and extinguish the flames for good.

On Wednesday, workers brought in heavy equipment into Allegheny County’s Boyce Park, about 10 miles east of Pittsburgh.

The project, which will cost an estimated $1.18 million, is scheduled to be completed next summer, DEP spokeswoman Betsy Mallison said.

``This is the only active mine fire project we are working on,″ Mallison said. ``This (mine fire) has taken a priority.″

A fire that has burned underground for at least 40 years has resulted in the evacuation of almost the entire population of Centralia in Columbia County.

Officials believe the Centralia fire began in May 1962 when trash being burned in a pit ignited a lode of anthracite, a hard, slow-burning coal that weaves its way under and around the town. Centralia had about 1,000 residents when the fire started but fewer than 20 residents still live in the borough.

John Niebauer, president of Earthmovers, said mine fires in the Pittsburgh Coal Seam are more intense than most because of the thickness of the seam.

``The Pittsburgh seam is traditionally a very rich and high seam of coal which is why miners liked to work it,″ he said. ``It is also why it’s such a problem when it catches fire. There’s a lot of fuel to burn.″


On the Net:

Allegheny County Parks Division: http://www.county.allegheny.pa.us/parks/

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