Crews dig deep to find coal seam fire answers
There’s no accurate, up-to-date information on what lies under the surface at the Coal Seam Fire site up South Canyon. But Steve Renner, a project manager with the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology, is working to change that.
Renner needs to know exactly where the underground coal seams – there are at least five – are, and where they widen and thin, in order to learn how to manage the coal seam fires still burning underground.
The only information currently available is from a 1952 mining company map, and Renner has already identified miscalculated elevations on that.
“I have no idea how accurate this map is,” he said, poring over the worn document. That’s why the geologist is working with a drilling company and is consulting with knowledgeable residents, like Rusty Ford, who can help him piece the canyon’s composition together.
On Friday, Renner set up a plywood and sawhorse desk alongside the dirt road snaking up South Canyon. Nearby, a drilling crew from Denver Grouting used a noisy core drill to bore into the ground. Renner was hoping to hit one of the area’s coal mines, supposedly 350 feet below ground.
“We can drill about 100 feet a day,” Renner said, standing a stone’s throw from the mountainside where last summer’s disastrous Coal Seam Fire originated. The site where the coal seam emerges onto the surface is still smoking and smoldering.
Renner and the drilling crew will take another sample farther up the canyon and use those two measurements to get a three-dimensional underground impression.
He’s also getting historical information from Ford, a lifetime Glenwood Springs resident who grew up in South Canyon, and whose father worked at one of the coal mines there.
“We’ll be able to get a picture of what is under our feet,” Renner said. “Essentially, we’ll have a slice of the mountain to look at.”
By spring, Renner wants to combine his underground map with an updated topographical map recently developed by Glenwood Springs city planner Mike Pelletier.
Renner said between South Canyon and Rifle, the Grand Hogback contains at least 10 mines: two in South Canyon, four around New Castle, one in Rifle and one at Harvey Gap. One is called the Pocahantas. The coal seams that the mines tap into have their own names too. One is called the Wheeler, another, the D. Another seam by New Castle is called the Allen.
Not a simple problem
What happens once Renner gets his information updated? Will his division be able to squelch existing underground fires and render the South Canyon area safe?
“Whatever we do, the fires here aren’t going to go away anytime soon,” he said. “It’s a disservice to oversimplify this problem.”
It’s also important to get the Coal Seam Fire issue in perspective.
South Canyon is one of 29 underground coal fires currently burning in Colorado, and the state is also plagued with 22,000 open mines.
With an annual budget of $2 million, the state Division of Minerals and Geology’s Abandoned Mines Program has a lot of responsibility to oversee public safety for all of those mines – and relatively little money to throw at South Canyon.
“Everything’s expensive,” Renner said when discussing possible methods of dousing the underground fires, such as injecting grout or foam.
Still, Renner knows that updating the region’s geologic information is an important step in understanding the Grand Hogback’s coal seams.
“We might not be able to manage the underground fires in this area,” he said. “The fire that ignited last summer has been burning for 92 years.”
The long view
Renner said learning about the region’s history from Ford is helpful – and Ford is glad to help.
“I grew up here,” Ford said, leaning up against Renner’s truck, parked along the South Canyon Road.
The coal mine Ford’s father worked in operated from 1901 until 1951, when it caught fire.
“It was during the night shift, so no one was down in there,” Ford said.
Ford, whose house was across the road from the Coal Seam Fire’s origin site, said the underground fire has always been smoking and burning.
“We used to go up and play around on that site,” he said, noting it didn’t make his father very happy. “He’d tell us to get off of there. It would glow at night.”
Ford pointed out two spots within sight of Renner’s drilling operation where underground fires are causing the nearby hillsides to smoke.
Understanding the fires that still burn under the Grand Hogback up South Canyon isn’t going to make them go away, but it will help in assessing what to do about them.
“These fires are a lot like earthquake zones,” Renner said. “They exist here. We need to learn as much as we can about them. Ultimately, I can’t say now what we’re going to do about them.”
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