Elk Creek officials watch mine after safety closure

Officials hope to have the Elk Creek coal mine stabilized in as soon as a week after the mine was closed on Jan. 9 when elevated levels of carbon monoxide were detected.

Carbon monoxide readings indicate “a heat event,” most likely the presence of smoldering coal, Jim Cooper, president of Oxbow Mining LLC, said.

The discovery forced the closure of the mine. No injuries were reported,

Today, Oxbow will begin the process of sealing off almost two-thirds of the mine to cut off the oxygen supply and quench the oxidizing process, Cooper said.

“We expect to have the mine stable within a week,” Cooper said, acknowledging that the process could take longer. “If we can do that, I can tell you it would be delightful.”

Most of the mine’s 340 employees were forced off the job by the closure.

“We probably have about 220 who are going to be affected right now” by the closure, with the others still working to stabilize the mine and performing other tasks, Cooper said.

Spontaneous combustion in coal seams is relatively common, but such events rarely burst into flame.

Burning underground coal, however, sparked a blaze above the ground near Glenwood Springs in 2002. The Coal Seam Fire engulfed 29 homes and blackened more than 12,000 acres.

The burning in the Elk Creek mine started in an area behind the longwall, a machine that cuts away large swaths of coal, leaving behind a void that is allowed to cave in, so no miner has seen the burning area, Cooper said.

The longwall had been closed as the result of two separate incidents of mine “bounce,” or incidents when the mine floor bows upward as the stress of overlaying coal is removed, a spokesman with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said.

Seismologists with the U.S. Geological Survey on Jan. 3 detected a tremor in the North Fork Valley they said was related to mine bounce.

The efforts to seal off the mine have the full support of management, Cooper said, noting as well that the federal mining agency also is supervising the effort.

“Everything we do has to be approved by them,” Cooper said.

Oxbow Resources is headed by billionaire William Koch, who owns the nearby Bear Ranch.

Sealing off the affected areas of the mine involve building temporary seals using familiar construction materials and foam at entries to the affected area to prevent oxygen from reaching the burning that is occurring. Permanent seals require the installation of 20 feet of concrete, Cooper said.

“We’re putting together a good plan to get back in,” Cooper said. “I just wish it was 10 times faster.”


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