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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

September 2000


Underground Mine Fires

As one of the country’s top ten coal-producers, Pennsylvania has fueled the national economy for 250 years. But historical mining, in days before environmentally responsible mining practice and strict mining regulation enforcement, has left a legacy of abandoned stripping pits, unmitigated acid mine drainage and a potential for underground mine fires (UMFs).

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection estimates that repairing the mine problems will cost the state more than $15 billion. And fighting the mine fires will be the most costly. The Federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) has identified 516 hectares in Pennsylvania as top priority, with a reclamation cost of nearly $600 million. The office defines underground mine fire problems as “continuous smoke, haze, heat, or venting of hazardous gases from underground mine coal combustion posing a danger to public health, safety and general welfare.”

Underground mine fires in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region are responsible for the lion’s share of reclamation costs. The steeply dipping and folded anthracite seams make it extremely difficult to extinguish the fires. And the geometry makes many relatively low-cost, UMF-fighting techniques ineffective. In addition, strata overlying anthracite seams are highly fractured, providing abundant conduits for oxygen to sustain combustion.
When Pennsylvania’s anthracite industry was more vibrant, mining companies commonly controlled fires in their underground mines. Today, with nearly all these mines abandoned, only the government remains to address the underground, manmade disasters.

John Memmi

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