State works to extinguish longtime underground mine fire in Plum

State environmental officials are working to put out an underground mine fire in Plum that is believed to have been burning for four or five decades. 

The fire, deep in a coal mine that was abandoned in 1914 in the Renton area of the borough, is considered only a minimal threat to public health. But it has prompted intervention over the past year by the state Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation. 

The bureau is finalizing plans to “completely eliminate the fire,” said Lauren Fraley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, of which the reclamation bureau is a part.

Beyond emitting a sulfur smell, the Renton fire poses only a “minimal” public health risk, Ms. Fraley said. But extinguishing it is considered a high priority, calling for the “protection of public health and safety from adverse effects of coal mining practices,” according to the bureau. 

While it was not immediately clear why the bureau has only recently intervened, the agency has “taken measures to minimize the impact” of the fire in the past, Ms. Fraley said. She noted that it has extinguished smaller underground fires in the vicinity, including in an abandoned coal mine beneath Boyce Park in the early 2000s.

In Pennsylvania, about three dozen mine fires are burning, Ms. Fraley said, seven of them in Allegheny County.

The mine reclamation bureau launched a pilot program last year to reclaim 14 abandoned mine sites in areas where it says there is a “strong potential for post-reclamation community and economic development.” The $30 million undertaking has broad support, involving partnerships with local governments, mine operators and environmental groups.

Two of the sites are in Allegheny County: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden in Oakdale and an area near Pittsburgh International Airport, where the Allegheny County Airport Authority plans to develop a “world trade center” that would stretch over nearly 200 acres.

Work in the Renton mine began in March 2016, with an eight-month project that involved drilling and pumping a cement-like grout into the mine cavity to isolate the fire and cut off its air supply. As a result, flames were extinguished that were too deep or inaccessible to put out by excavation, Ms. Fraley said. 

Cuddy-based Howard Concrete Pumping Inc. carried out the undertaking, which proved effective, she said, covering a larger area than originally expected and reducing the scope of the fire. The cost was about $3.8 million.

The second phase of the project is under design and will involve excavation work all the way down to the burning coal seam. The mine stretches as deep as 120 feet. Afterward, workers will backfill the shaft, restoring its condition.

That work could resume as soon as early next year, Ms. Fraley said, adding that the bureau plans to start seeking bids for the project later this year. It is unclear when the work would finish or how much it will cost. 

Coal mining began in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s, fueling not only the rise of the steel industry in the region but also industrial growth across the country.

Despite the prosperity that followed, the industry left a legacy of environmental degradation, as there were no formal environmental regulations governing mining operations for two centuries, according to the DEP. After being stripped of their coal deposits, sites were abandoned, left to languish in a degraded state.

The Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation is charged with addressing the long-standing problems that abandoned mines have left across Pennsylvania, including land subsidence, dangerous gas emissions and tainted water supplies.

The severity of the risks such sites pose is based on a three-tier system established by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which collects fees from coal mining companies to help finance reclamation projects. The designations are based on a number of factors, with public health risks taking precedence.

Jake Flannick, freelance writer:

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