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Boyce Park's mine fire necessitates drastic action

Sunday, November 25, 2001

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When maintenance workers at Boyce Park spotted smoke rising from a crack in the ground a dozen years ago, they knew it wasn't a gopher puffing on a Macanudo.

If only it were.

Donald J. Killmeyer Jr.,left, deputy director of engineering with the Allegheny County Department of Public Works, talks with Clarence Hopson, deputy director of recreation with the department, and Sonny Chiorazzo, supervisor of Boyce Park.The three men were discussing the plan to excavate part of Boyce Park to battle a mine fire. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

The smoke signaled the presence of a hidden, hellish scourge that has tormented communities across the state for decades -- an uncontrolled fire in an abandoned coal mine.

Federal officials had supposedly extinguished the fire beneath the Boyce Park site in 1961. Forty years later, it is still burning.

Next year, the state hopes to snuff out the fire once and for all. But the renewed attempt will take a toll on the environment and on recreation in the popular county park in Plum.

Simply put, the state intends to dig the fire out of the earth and wipe out trees, trails, picnic shelters and everything else in the way. The plans call for deploying backhoes to excavate an area the size of four football fields, creating a mammoth, 70-foot-deep pit.

County officials grimace at the thought of excavators ripping out cedars and maples in the 1,100-acre park.

Online Map:
A closer look at the area



"Once they start digging, I know there are going to be plenty of concerns from the walkers and joggers who use the park," county Deputy Public Works Director Clarence Hopson said.

But the state has convinced county officials that the fire could wreak many sorts of havoc if left unchecked much longer.

"Here is a fire burning near picnic pavilions, near parking lots," said Steve Jones, a supervising geologist with the state Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation. "If it burned through the park, it would emerge in the vicinity of some housing developments. Clearly, we don't want that."

The fire is burning in the Pittsburgh Coal Seam in a long-abandoned section of the Plum Creek Mine.

On a chilly fall morning, smoke can be seen gushing out of cracks in the ground, rising upward from three spots on a thicket-choked hillside.

"It's coming up pretty fast," said Al Pitcock, a Plum retiree who on a recent morning stopped to watch during a walk through the park. "It must be burning pretty good."

A generation ago, such fires were burning all over Allegheny County. In 1953, the U.S. Bureau of Mines counted 44 uncontrolled mine fires from Monroeville to Moon.

But, at latest count, four remain in addition to Boyce Park's -- one in the Renton area of Plum, one in West Elizabeth and two in Findlay.

Extinguishing the Boyce Park fire ranks as the highest priority.

"We don't want it to continue spreading," said Tim Altares, a geologist with the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation. "There is no natural barrier there to stop it."

Unless a mine fire hits a natural barrier like a groundwater aquifer, it can burn and spread for decades until it runs out of coal or oxygen.

Officials don't know how the Boyce Park fire started.

According to Altares, deep mining took place beneath Plum from around the turn of the 20th century to the Great Depression. Strip mining continued for decades afterward.

The fire might have started at an exposed spot in the coal seam. A lightning strike could have ignited the coal. Or someone could have provided the spark by burning garbage in a trash pit.

But it is also possible that the coal ignited on its own through spontaneous combustion. When coal absorbs oxygen, the oxidation generates heat that can start a fire.

Once it gets started, a fire can find sufficient oxygen in the tunnels and shafts of an abandoned mine. The flames feed on the coal seam for continued sustenance.

As coal mine fires go, the one in Boyce Park is relatively shallow, about 60 feet below the surface. That makes it a little easier to combat, at least compared with blazes that burn in the bowels of much deeper mines, like the fire that still plagues the town of Centralia in northeastern Pennsylvania after four decades.

The Boyce Park fire has done only limited damage. Other than the displays of smoke on chilly mornings, the only obvious evidence is some dead trees on the hillside where the excavation will occur.

"The roots of trees get basically cooked," Altares said.

If the fire spreads, it could create sink holes in the park, because the flames can consume the supports that hold up the tunnels in the abandoned mine. In addition, the fire can give off carbon monoxide gases that rise to the surface through fissures in the ground, posing a health threat.

Ultimately, the fire could advance to the residential neighborhood on the park's western border.

"There is no real immediate danger there," said Ted Kopas, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "There are some potential dangers."

Generally speaking, if a coal-mine fire is burning in a rural and unpopulated area, the state won't bother trying to put it out. Such is the case, for instance, with the fire in Laurel Run, outside Wilkes-Barre, which has been blazing since 1915.

But Boyce Park is in a major metropolitan area, which raises the question: Why is a fire still burning there 12 years after workers spotted smoke?

The answer is that the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation didn't plan on taking quite this long to extinguish the subterranean flames.

About five years ago, the state carefully designed a strategy that was far less disruptive than excavating four acres in a busy park. It entailed pumping an experimental fire-extinguishing foam into the heart of the fire.

"We were looking at some other way of putting out the fire without excavation," Altares said. "We were willing to try something new."

But just as the state was about to drill the holes for the pumping, the supplier of the foam pulled out of the project. The company had offered to provide the experimental product free of charge to demonstrate its effectiveness but got cold feet at the eleventh hour, frustrating state officials.

"We put a lot of work effort into designing that project," Altares said.

Sent back to the drawing board, the state now is taking the more conventional but more destructive approach of extinguishing the fire through excavation.

The project entails digging a 1,200-foot-long and 70-foot-deep trench ahead of the fire. The trench will produce a gap in the coal seam to thwart the fire's advance.

Then excavators will literally dig up the fire itself, creating a pit that will be 1,200 feet long, 250 feet wide and nearly as deep as the trench. About 230,000 cubic yards of burning coal and hot soil will be piled nearby. If necessary, water will be sprayed on the pile to put out the fire.

Finally, the excavated area will be backfilled and new trees planted.

The whole process will take 12 to 15 months, beginning next summer and possibly extending through summer 2003, and will cost less than $1 million, according to the DEP's Kopas.

State officials intend to solicit bids from excavation companies next spring.

Forty years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Mines tried a different method. The federal government excavated part of the burning area, but relied on sealing the surface at ground level in an attempt to cut off the fire's supply of oxygen.

Obviously, it didn't work. The fire now is burning under a hillside about 600 feet away.

"It could have taken a rather circuitous route in the mine and literally wandered along underground for a fairly substantial distance until reaching the place it has emerged today," said Jones, the state geologist.

This time, the idea is to excavate the fire completely, leaving nothing to chance.

"When we're done, hopefully, there will be nothing warm left underground," Altares said.

The excavation should not adversely affect the ski slopes or the wave pool, both of which lie in the south end of the park, far enough away from the fire.

But the project will require dismantling the Tanglewood and Hillcourt picnic shelters and will cut off access to three others: Primrose, Star and Explorer's.

The shelters are generally booked every weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day, so losing five of them, out of a total of 32, will cause a squeeze.

In addition, the county will have to block off the popular trail that runs parallel to Pierson Run Road.

But perhaps more importantly, the park will lose scores of full-grown maples, cedars and other trees.

The state has committed to rebuilding the picnic shelters and replacing the trees once the project is finished. But the hillside will bear marks from the excavation for years, because seedlings will be planted where mature trees now stand.

And for a year, excavators will be disfiguring the northern section of Boyce Park, like surgeons cutting open a person to stop the spread of a disease.

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