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DEP to spend $1.45M to snuff coal fire posing threat by Pittsburgh airport

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, 12:48 p.m.
An underground coal pile fire that has been smoldering for several years is sending some smoke and steam into the air near Pittsburgh International Airport. The Department of Environmental Protection is making plans to extinguish the embers.
Allegheny County Airport Authority
An underground coal pile fire that has been smoldering for several years is sending some smoke and steam into the air near Pittsburgh International Airport. The Department of Environmental Protection is making plans to extinguish the embers.

The smell of burning embers and occasional wisps of light smoke escaping from the ground are the only obvious signs something's cooking beneath a 10-acre patch of land just southwest of the Pittsburgh International Airport.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said on Wednesday that a fire in a coal pile is producing the smoke, and the problem could threaten a radar facility and an underground gas pipeline, and become a problem for air traffic visibility. Two Consol Energy gas well pads are nearby.

DEP said it will begin a $1.45 million project next month to extinguish the fire, which is spreading among small chunks of coal mixed with rock and dirt from mining operations abandoned in the 1930s.

“We certainly think if left unattended, it could threaten operations in some respect at the airport, but that would be a worst-case scenario over a long period of time,” DEP spokesman John Poister said.

DEP spokeswoman Amanda Whitman said the fire has ignited brush fires with excessive smoke in the past, “causing landing pilots to fear that there had been an accident of some kind.”

The Federal Aviation Administration said the coal pile fire has not affected air traffic operations.

The burning coal has not caused any issues, an American Airlines spokesperson said.

Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Thais Conway wrote on Wednesday in an email: “The fire has not created any visibility impairment for Southwest pilots and we continue to operate without issue.”

The fire is about three-quarters of a mile southwest of the nearest airport runway — outside the main lines of approach — and a half-mile from two of Consol Energy's well pad sites on airport property.

“This issue has not impacted Consol Energy natural gas development operations on PIT property, nor do we anticipate any impact moving forward,” Consol spokeswoman Kate O'Donovan said by email.

Without intervention, the underground ember fire could pose a risk to a nearby airport radar facility and to a major underground natural gas pipeline, the DEP said.

Whitman said the state agency decided to prioritize the project in late 2011 because of the brush fire reports.

JoAnn Jenny, Allegheny County Airport Authority spokeswoman, said the airport has had an environmental specialist involved with the DEP and the Bureau of Mine Safety as part of meetings on the project.

“It hasn't interfered with airport operations or ground transportation,” Jenny said. “It is a positive thing they're addressing it.”

The state spends several millions of dollars annually on coal fire remediation, Whitman said. Most recently, Pennsylvania received a $58.5 million Abandoned Mine Land grant in 2013.

DEP awarded a $1.454 million contract to a Kylertown company, Earthmovers Unlimited, to excavate 429,000 cubic yards of coal waste from the pile, which was formed during mining by an undetermined company during the first three decades of the 20th century.

The new contract follows a minor project by the DEP two years ago, when the state spent $200,000 to $300,000 to dig a trench that provided a temporary barrier to contain the fire.

To put out the embers for good, workers will use several million gallons of water and 200 gallons of firefighting foam. Workers will also grade and plant vegetation on the 10-acre site to prevent erosion.

The DEP expects the project will take about a year.

It's among at least 40 piles of coal waste burning across Pennsylvania, along with another 40 deep mine fires, the DEP said. The state ranks the fires by risk, then uses federal funds generated by fees charged to coal operators to extinguish them.

Thousands of such fires are burning around the world on every continent except Antarctica, said Glenn Stracher, a professor of geology and physics at East Georgia State College who has been studying coal-related fires for 15 years. The United States is home to hundreds across several states, including Pennsylvania, Alabama. Colorado, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

“You hear very, very little about coal fires, and they're an international problem,” Stracher said. He points out that a typical coal spoil fire emits 45 to 55 gases, some of which are toxic and carcinogenic.

The causes of coal pile fires vary and are often hard to pinpoint, ranging from cigarette butts and campfires to spontaneous combustion when sulfide minerals mix with oxygen, Stracher said.

Kevin Gurchak, manager of environmental compliance for the airport authority, believes the pockets of smoldering embers outside the airport ignited from a lightning strike six or seven years ago.

“We think lightning struck a tree, and as the tree burned, it caught some coal spoils on fire,” he said.

The DEP has cut several “fire breaks” around the spoils fire to prevent its spread. Gurchak said the nearby ground radar station that monitors ground vehicles for the airport has not been affected.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or Staff writer Bobby Kerlik contributed to this report.

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