Crews renew battle to put out series of pesky coal mine fires
A number of old underground coal mine fires in the region are getting new attention as officials work to try to at least cool them down, if not put them out.
The Colorado Inactive Mines Reclamation Program and the federal Office of Surface Mining have been planning projects in two mines in Haas Canyon northeast of Rifle. Steve Renner, senior project manager in Grand Junction for the inactive mines program, said another project is about to get under way near Rangely, and the Go Boy mine project near Palisade and the Hot Point project north of Loma in the Bookcliffs have gone out to bid.
Mine fires in the region have ignited for reasons ranging from methane gas explosions to spontaneous combustion. Many of the fires have burned for decades and are difficult to extinguish, partly because of the challenge of understanding what’s going on underground. For one thing, the location of fires beneath the surface doesn’t necessarily correspond to where smoke is emerging, Renner said.
“They’re extremely complicated things to work with, and complication always results in really great expense and a lot of effort that goes into trying to understand them and move forward on doing something about them,” he said.
An underground fire can pose a danger to people who visit the vicinity because it can result in unstable ground prone to collapse. Underground fires also can touch off wildfires such as the 2002 Coal Seam Fire, which claimed dozens of homes near Glenwood Springs.
Renner said one project in Haas Canyon could start within a month. A $98,000 contract is awaiting approval. The work would entail repairing a dirt cap that the U.S. Bureau of Mines put in place decades ago and was partially successful in snuffing out the fire.
Renner said the fire has surface temperatures of perhaps only a few hundred degrees. He said it’s best to work with fires before they can burn hotter, and if it is consuming coal, it can lead to ground collapse and increased air circulation that further feeds a fire.
The goal is to put out the Haas Canyon fire through suffocation, “but it’s a very, very long-term proposition,” Renner said.
The $145,000 IHI mine project in the same canyon will entail digging up the surface, quenching what burning materials can be reached, and mixing in noncombustible rock and earth. Renner said that fire is so extensive and complicated it would take a lot more money to extinguish it, and the goal for now is to keep it from burning on the surface.
The $106,000 Skull Creek project northeast of Rangely will involve injecting foam and water in some 50 previously drilled holes and trying to direct the foam’s movement underground by attaching mine fans to bore holes.
Meanwhile, crews have completed a project that cost about $533,000 involving a mine fire near Harvey Gap Reservoir north of Silt. There, a young fire flared up last year, prompting complaints from area residents about the smoke. Renner said a contractor this spring drilled 25 or more holes into the mine. Foam and water were sent underground to cool the fire, and grout was injected to cut off oxygen and fill voids to help prevent subsidence.
The site will need to be monitored for years, Renner said.
“I’d say at this really, really early stage it looks good,” he said.
At the Coal Seam Fire ignition site, the state did some mapping of underground areas that have and haven’t burned. But Renner said it seems unlikely that fire can be extinguished with current resources, and the focus now is on working on surface-management approaches. Renner said vegetation removal around underground fires can be the key to keeping wildfires from occurring.