Underground fire at East Deer glass plant appears to have spread

August 20, 2018
Smoke from an underground fire can be seen rising from behind the Pittsburgh Glass Works plant in East Deer on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018.

The coal refuse fire burning under the Pittsburgh Glass Works plant in East Deer may be spreading.

Fire was seen shooting up through the ground behind the plant Thursday night, according to workers.

Two pockets of smoke rising from the ground were visible behind the plant along Ferry Street on Friday morning.

Since last September, the company has been investigating an ongoing fire under the plant caused by coal refuse that apparently was used as backfill for the factory site many years ago.

Thursday’s fire outbreak outside of the plant, closer to the Allegheny River, appears to be a new development, according to a statement released by PGW on Friday.

“PGW discovered visual embers and flame in a small crack in the soil about 30 or 40 yards away from its auto glass production building. The crack was approximately 5 to 6 feet in length and 2 to 3 inches wide,” according to the statement.

Company personnel suppressed the embers and flame with dirt and gravel, and local authorities were notified, according to PGW.

As a precaution, the company is removing weeds and other ground vegetation from the area where the fire erupted. They will continue to monitor indoor air quality inside the plant.

The new flames, less than a half-foot high, burned blue and were documented in a video shot by a worker Thursday night and circulated on social media.

Since last year, PGW has been addressing localized hot spots on the plant’s interior concrete floor.

In April, the company reported it began “limited excavation work” on the Allegheny River side the plant to assess the soil composition as part of an overall investigation and monitoring of the underground fire, according to a post on a company website.

Carbon monoxide and other combustion by-products -- including hydrogen sulfide and flammable gas -- have been detected from the fire under the plant, according to PGW.

Since the discovery of the underground fire, they have been venting the plant and monitoring the plant’s air.

Though the flames were small, workers said they were shocking to see.

“It looked like Yellowstone Park, which shouldn’t be in East Deer,” said Justin Gibbs, 30, of Springdale. He said he learned about the fire from other workers and then saw the fire during his 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift Thursday into Friday.

Operations at the 135-year-old automotive glass manufacturing site will cease in about a week, on Aug. 17, when the plant’s current owner, PGW, moves production to other sites.

A division of the Mexico-based Vitro Automotive Glass, PGW has said that the Creighton plant is outdated and its manufacturing capacity is above market demand.

About 160 of the remaining employees will be laid off.

The fire has been investigated by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But details on a plan to extinguish the fire have not yet been made public.

As of Friday morning, East Deer officials had not received official word on the fire, according to Tony Taliani, township commissioners chairman.

Taliani said he is disgusted because the fire, discovered about 10 months ago, still is burning.

With the latest apparent movement or spread of the fire, Taliani said, “My concerns are the safety and well being of East Deer residents.”

Taliani said PGW hasn’t shared information with the township about its plans for the fire and site.

“What they are doing is unacceptable,” he said. “It’s not fair to the township or the residents.”

Taliani said he plans to re-engage federal, state and county agencies to get resolution on the site.

PGW said in its statement that it plans to keep its employees, neighbors and community leaders updated.

There has been a history of coal use at the site, which was the home of the first commercially successful plate glass factory in the country when it was owned by Pittsburgh Plate Glass, which is today’s PPG Industries.

Although natural gas was used to heat operations, coal was used at one point during the glass-making process and perhaps for heating.

The former PPG plant operated a coal mine on an adjacent hill in East Deer many years ago along with a rail trestle above Freeport Road from the mine to the plant, according to a local historian Bob Lucas, 79, of Tarentum.

The trestle carried coal cars that went into the factory at least before and during the 1950s, he said.

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