Mining expert: Tire fire in mine not likely to spread below Trevorton

{child_byline}Eric Scicchitano{&pipe}{/child_byline}

TREVORTON — A tire fire burning inside an abandoned mineshaft in Zerbe Township isn’t at risk of spreading beneath the village of Trevorton, according to a state mining official.

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) representatives met with local and state elected officials and emergency responders again Thursday to assess the scene atop Big Mountain immediately south of Trevorton.

An environmental remediation firm will be sought under emergency contract to either fill the mine shaft with foam material or inert gas to smother the fire next week. The effort will be massive and expensive, with loose estimates of $1 million bandied about during the discussion.

Brian Bradley of the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation (BAMR) cited mining maps and geological information when explaining that the coal seam accessed by the shaft runs east to west between the Trevorton area and East Cameron Township.

“There are not any communities that it would dip under,” Bradley said.

Based on the location of a mine pool, he said the fire wouldn’t spread beyond Gap Road that skirts the mountain on the west. He noted that strip mining operations would limit how far it would potentially spread eastward, and said some areas below ground may be “pinched off” where coal pillars were robbed and collapsed.

“We believe we’re geographically protected,” Bradley said.

The fire site is located just steps behind the Coal Miner’s Cross Memorial visible from the town below. The parcel of land is owned by Northumberland County, leased by the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area, and isn’t currently permitted for mining.

The water level below grade at the site is estimated at 640 feet while the mine is about 800 feet below grade, Steve Jeffery, Northumberland County emergency management director, said previously.

Flames can’t be seen from the surface. Gray smoke billows steadily from the narrow mineshaft opening, estimated at about 10 feet in diameter. A scent of sulfur had been detectable by many on scene at other points but after lunchtime Thursday, it smelled like burning rubber. DEP cited the smoke and smell on Tuesday in saying the department thinks that as of now, the fire is mostly consuming the waste tires. However, DEP is working under the assumption that some coal is burning.

The fire was first reported to Northumberland County 911 on Saturday evening. Illegal dumping is generally blamed as thousands of used tires and other waste materials are thought to be tossed into the shaft, though the exact cause of ignition remains under investigation.

Bradley told state Rep. Kurt Masser, R-107, that emergency contract bids would open shortly and remain open for three days before a contract is awarded on the spot. Bradley estimated work could begin by middle to late next week. John Curley, also with BAMR, said the successful bidder would need to begin work immediately.

Until then, Trevorton Fire Co. will add to the estimated 400,000 gallons of water that have been dumped into the shaft since Saturday. Zerbe Township Supervisor Daniel Billig said water tanker trucks have made about eight trips daily to the site. A fill-and-dump takes about one hour roundtrip, he said.

Bradley told Masser, Northumberland County Commissioner Joe Klebon and Zerbe Township supervisors Mike Schwartz and Billig that the foam possibly used to smother the fire might cost $300,000 to $400,000 itself plus equipment and labor. The total cost could reach $1 million, he said.

“To put this on a small township, that’s not doable,” Masser said. “I think for something like this, the governor has to get involved.”

Approximately 2 million gallons of water, maybe more, would be needed to make the fire suppression foam and fill the shaft. That doesn’t account for the potential laterals, known or unknown, stemming from the shaft.

Masser said a fracking company would be sought to more efficiently pump water to the mountaintop as multiple fire department tankers and other apparatus were damaged while driving the rocky, steep terrain Saturday. Josh Funk, of the office of state Sen. John Gordner, R-27, said DEP is ready to provide all necessary permits to pump from nearby water sources.

DEP could draw from dedicated funding for the remediation of abandoned mine land to fund the costs associated with the emergency contractor, Bradley said. Other sources would have to be explored to cover costs incurred by local fire departments. Jeffery, the emergency management director, suggested Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency could be a source.

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