Plans surface to drill into local underground coal fires |

Plans surface to drill into local underground coal fires

The Coal Seam Fire that threatened Glenwood Springs this summer is out. But the coal-seam fire that has burned for decades beneath the ground in South Canyon is still smoldering.

In December, crews will drill two exploratory holes in an attempt to see what, if anything, can be done about the underground menace.

The fire gained notoriety on June 8 when it ignited surface brush and touched off a wildfire that burned 29 homes and eventually grew to more than 12,000 acres.

Steve Renner, a project manager with the state Division of Minerals and Geology’s Abandoned Mine Lands program, said drilling at the coal seam was planned even before the outbreak of the Coal Seam Fire. Officials were concerned about how close the coal seam is to homes and recreation areas.

The devastation caused by the June wildfire put an exclamation point on those concerns.

Renner said the point of the drilling is to begin evaluating the nature of the fire, in order to determine what firefighting efforts, if any, can be directed against it.

One drill hole will be used to gain a better understanding of the geology of the seam. The second is aimed at the coal mine that once operated in the area.

Cost of the first phase of the project will be around $190,000. Helicopters will have to position the drilling equipment because there is no road access, Renner said.

Crews probably will return in the spring for more drilling, Renner said.

One goal of the drilling is to correlate old, and somewhat vague, mine maps with what can be observed on the surface, Renner said.

Drillers will try to hit mined-out pockets within the seam. The air in those pockets can yield valuable information about heat levels and amounts and types of combustible gases.

The drilling and follow-up work will be complicated because the mines were multi-leveled, and the area of the fire extends perhaps three-quarters of a mile along the seam.

Just last week, Renner worked in South Canyon with heavy equipment operators and water from a fire truck to expose and douse burning areas within surface coal debris piles. The piles apparently were ignited by this summer’s fire and continued to smolder for months.

If only coal-seam fires were so easy to work with. Such fires are far too dangerous to try to fight from underground, Renner said.

“Excavation is kind of out of the question here,” he said.

Injection of grout to cut off the air supply has been tried with some underground fires, including one near Rifle, with only limited success. Renner said one problem is that even when obvious surface vents are closed off, the ground itself can be permeable enough to let air get in.

Nitrogen is sometimes injected in active mines, with the same goal of cutting off air supply, but abandoned mines generally breathe too much to make such an approach effective, he said.

It’s possible that grout and a kind of aircraft firefighting foam could be used in combination in South Canyon, Renner said.

He also has visited Utah, where a super-saline solution has been used on coal-seam fires. The solution coats and encrusts the burning coal.

Renner has also studied methods tried in the East, where a combination of methods seems to produce the most success.

The question is how much those methods would cost.

“They tell me in Pennsylvania they don’t think twice about dropping $6 million on a fire,” said Renner.

By comparison, Colorado’s entire annual budget for its Abandoned Mined Lands program is $2 million.

In hindsight, a $6 million investment to extinguish South Canyon’s burning coal seam before it ignited the Coal Seam Fire might have been worthwhile. Altogether, the wildfire cost some $8 million to suppress, an estimated $5.7 million for revegetation work and debris flow control, and caused about $6.4 million in property damages.

But wildfires triggered by coal seams are rare in Colorado. In Pennsylvania, the underground fires can burn so close to residential areas the state has little choice but to fight them. The threat posed by Colorado’s 30 or so mine fires, some of which are in remote areas, is not as great.

A fair number of those fires are in Garfield County, and have burned for many decades. Some coal-seam fires were caused by explosions when the mines were active, some by lightning, others by spontaneous combustion.

The 10-12 staff members in the Abandoned Mined Lands program spend much of their funding and effort on a greater danger in Colorado: securing mines so that people don’t die by falling into them or inhaling toxic underground gases.

It’s most likely that the state agency will focus on small, problematic areas within the burning-coal-seam area rather than undertake a large-scale effort to extinguish it, Renner said.

“There’s no easy solution,” he said. “We may or may not be able to put it out.”

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