By Dale Mann
On Saturday, amid clouds of smoke, workers along Deer Creek in Indiana Township hosed-down smoldering sections of a coal refuse fire that has been burning there since February. Fish and Boat Commission (FBC) officials are awaiting word from the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation (OSMR), who are overseeing the extinguishing and excavation efforts, in order to determine whether or not the fire will impact their scheduled stocking of the creek set for April 14.
During an onsite bid on March 18, Courtney Contracting was awarded the contract to excavate and extinguish the Deer Creek pile. Further excavation will determine the extent of the fire and the timeline for resolving it.
“Due to the porous nature of the coal, the pile is being meticulously sorted and extinguished,” said Rick Balog of the OSMR. “It is out of the scope of a fire department because these things generally can’t be put out by just plain water,” he explained, “You need someone with the equipment to excavate and expose all of that material.”
“You’ve got to be careful,” he warned, “because if you hit a pocket of coal that is very fine material, it can burst into flames.”
The fire was first detected in February by excavation crews working on the property of Medrad in Indianola. Officials at Medrad instituted an immediate precautionary evacuation and have since restricted access to the area surrounding the burning pile.
Upon arrival at the site, the OSM drilled a series of holes in the refuse pile in order to determine the location and preliminary extent of the fire.
According to Balog, early investigations indicated that the fire was caused by a natural erosion of the stream bank. As the bank failed, it introduced a fresh oxygen supply to the area within the above-ground pile which had been burning for an undetermined amount of time, he said.
According to Balog, although the abandoned mine lies directly beneath the burning pile, it is currently flooded and in no danger of igniting.
Coal refuse consists of the previously unused mine materials which are separated from coal during mining. Currently, coal refuse can be used as a nonhazardous secondary source of fuel. However, lack of early regulation has left many abandoned mines with utilized piles, such as that along Deer Creek.
Although acid mine drainage, as well as other environmental hazards pose a threat to the environment and wildlife, FBC officials say that the fire and the attention that it has drawn from the OSMR may be beneficial to the conditions of the creek. “Every time that it rained, the toxins were going off of the pile and into the creek anyway,” said Emil Svetahor of the FBC, “this may improve it.”
Svetahor stated that the OSMR has agreed to keep any water used to extinguish the fire separate from that which enters the creek. He added that the FBC has already pushed back stocking of the creek from March until April 14 as a precautionary measure.
Balog added that the pile bank will be reinforced with stone riprap in order to keep it from collapsing again.
In an effort to re-vegetate the area, the OSMR will be creating a trout habitat before they leave the site at Deer Creek, Balog told The Pride. He said that new areas will be created within the creek where fish can live, and new trees will be planted along the bank in order to provide them with shade.
Coal refuse piles are common sites near abandoned mines across Southwestern Pennsylvania, many of them having either been covered over, as in Indianola, or have been re-housed within the empty mine. The OSM has proposed a revision to its current performance and reclamation standards which would encourage the “re-mining” of these sites.
“Fortunately we’ve been getting some great cooperation from the DEP water quality people, the Fish and Boat people, Medrad,” said Balog. “Everyone’s working for us and with us to make this thing go.” Officials from the DEP failed to return our phone call prior to publication.