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Coal seam fires resist attempts to put them out

Donna Daniels
Staff Writer

It would take millions of dollars and a great deal of luck to put out the underground coal fire that is believed to have started the Coal Seam Fire, which has burned 12,000 acres around Glenwood Springs.

Such underground fires are not uncommon in Colorado. According to David Bucknam, project supervisor for the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology’s inactive mine program, there are 29 underground coal mine fires currently burning in the state.

The fires burn in steeply angled coal seams, which are fed by air coming through numerous vents to the surface, Bucknam said.

“The real challenge is to find the vents and all the areas that are burning and completely surround them,” Bucknam said.

In the mid-1990s, the state agency had some success containing an underground coal mine fire at the IHI Mine east of Rifle Gap Reservoir, at a cost of approximately $875,000.

“We had to figure out where the fire was burning,” Bucknam said.

Drill holes were sunk to determine not only the areas that were burning but also what direction the fire was moving.

The geologists also found a deep cavern about 15 feet in diameter in which the coal was burning so hot it glowed, Bucknam said.

After completing the drilling, they found the fire extended about 400 yards in a strip between six and seven feet wide, he said.

To arrest the fire, they pumped a mix of ash, cement, water, sand and a foaming agent into the drill holes. Underground, the grout mixture expanded to fill the holes that supplied the fire with air.

But knowing that they probably did not find all the vents into the fire, Bucknam said the project was not a complete success.

“We like to think we have it contained. It’s not out, but we don’t think it’s going to spread,” he said.

The same coal seam the IHI Mine tapped extends along the Grand Hogback to New Castle. There, Burning Mountain attests to a local coal seam fire ignited by mine explosions in the 1890s and in 1910. The explosions killed a total of 89 miners, and the fires burn a century later.

The seam also winds into South Canyon, where two coal mines were operated, Bucknam said.

The South Canyon Mine No. 1 on the west side of the canyon operated from 1887 to 1951, reopened in 1958 and closed permanently in 1968. The mine extended to the east side of the canyon, he said.

An underground fire has burned on both sides of the canyon since 1910, Bucknam said.

The South Canyon No. 2, also called the Gem Mine, was mined from 1938 to 1946. An underground fire also burns there.

Bucknam said the two mines are not connected.

Seven years ago, geologists from the minerals and geology division found a huge vent in South Canyon that was spewing mine gases.

“The hole was a real mankiller,” Bucknam said.

A concrete plug was inserted into the hole at a cost of $123,000, he added.

Finding all the coal mine vents in South Canyon would be a daunting job. Then the area would have to be drilled to find where the fire is burning and the vents and holes filled with grout.

“The whole process would be extremely expensive,” Bucknam said.

If the job were to be undertaken, it would be at the city of Glenwood Springs’ expense. The city has owned 2,800 acres in South Canyon since the early 1950s, said city manager Mike Copp. That land includes the city landfill and the land above the two coal mines.

Copp said the city is not worried about liability for the damage caused by the fire, although it did not take steps to put out the coal mine fires.

“It’s just an act of nature. It’s been burning for 90 years, before it was city property,” Copp said.

Underground coal fires can start from spontaneous combustion, or sparks from mining operations can ignite highly flammable coal dust or methane gas, Bucknam said.


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