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Clairton fire leaves smoky haze

| Monday, July 17, 2017, 5:21 a.m.

Authorities say an illegal pile of grass clippings and mulch in Clairton spontaneously combusted late last week and is responsible for a smoky haze and smell in the city, though the owner of the property blames an underground coal fire.

Starting late Thursday, residents began reporting smoke from the ravine that runs between St. Clair and Worthington avenues, where Clairton fire Chief Joe Lazur said a business had built a pile of mulch and compost that was about 50 feet by 100 feet and 70 feet deep on a hillside. The Allegheny County Fire Marshal's office investigated and determined the fire was contained within the "large, illegally created compost pile" and was naturally occurring.

It appeared the heat of decomposition within the pile built up enough to cause "underground" fires, so the fire department soaked the pile with water in an effort to quenceh the fire and suppress the smoke for about four or five hours Friday, Lazur said.

But Lazur said firefighters stopped dumping water on the hillside after it looked like the pile was starting to slide down into the ravine and the creek within it.

"Last night/this morning, it got about 10 times worse," Lazur said of the smoke Monday, when complaints on social media started rising. "When we're putting water on it, it's keeping the smoke down, but it's not getting to the fire. We were forcing more air into it."

He emphasized that firefighters took readings in multiple places around the fire and found none had high or hazardous levels of smoke. People were taking to social media to complain about burning throats and eyes, but no one had called 911 or been transported by EMS, he said.

After the Department of Environmental Protection and the Allegheny County Health Department inspected the site, they said the fire department could resume pouring water onto the hillside to suppress the smoke, and personnel returned to the scene with a ladder truck later Monday, Lazur said. Crews were staying about 30 feet back from the edge of the pit because of concerns about the ground's stability.

Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs said the health department cited the property owner for improperly disposing of waste and the fire. The department's air quality program was still evaluating the area for violations, but carbon monoxide readings were low Monday and the firefighters' return appeared to have decreased the smoke, Downs said in a press release.

Bruce Fox, who owns the Fox Maintenance and Fox's Worm Farm business accused of building up the burning hillside, said the source of the fire wasn't mulch but an underground coal seam near the bottom of the ravine.

"I assume it's coal, because mulch isn't going to burn and smoke like that for days," he said.

He hadn't been dumping grass clippings and compost into the ravine, he said; rather, he was trying to fertilize the soil along the hillside in an effort to plant trees there.

The DEP's Mine Safety Insurance risk map lists the area south of the ravine as having underground coal but no known mining history.

"It could be another Centralia," Fox said, referring to the Columbia County borough abandoned because of a coal mine fire burning below it since 1962. "They've got a big problem, and they want to blame the worm guy."

The Rev. Joachim Pantelis, a retired Greek Orthodox priest who lives in a house overlooking the ravine, said he'd been disappointed with the response to the fire and was worried about what would happen if it spread.

"The smell alone is terrible," he said. "This fire is smoldering; what happens if the trees start catching on fire? Our homes would be in danger."

The DEP and health department continue to monitor the situation, their respective spokespeople said. Anyone with breathing difficulties attributed to the smoke should call 911.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @msantoni.

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