SUNBURY — The frequency and density of the smoke in an abandoned mine in Zerbe Township have lessened, indicating that progress has been made in extinguishing the underground fire in lower Northumberland County, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Megan Lehman, environmental community relations specialist, Williamsport, said on Tuesday that DEP is partnering at the scene with faculty from the University of Scranton to utilize specialized video equipment designed to work remotely in mine fire environments. Video was taken on Tuesday within the underground mine that will be analyzed to better understand the evolving underground conditions.
“Smoke continues to come out of the mine opening, but the frequency and density of the smoke have lessened,” said Lehman. “A temperature probe was lowered to approximately 150 feet and the highest temperature recorded was 69 degrees Fahrenheit, similar to ambient temperatures.”
DEP met last week at the site with emergency response contractors to assess the fire, which was first reported at an abandoned mine opening in a mountainous area atop Big Mountain immediately south of Trevorton on April 24. Thousands of used tires and other waste discarded illegally into the mine opening caught fire and it’s presumed coal is also burning.
DEP contracted with Tri-County Spreading of Paxinos on Friday to drive water using multiple tanker trucks to the mine opening atop Big Mountain immediately south of Trevorton. The contractor dumped approximately 65,000 gallons Saturday and more than 100,000 Sunday.
“The large-volume water hauling contractor has exceeded initial expectations in the amount of water delivered to the site and applied to the fire,” said Lehman. “This has had a significant impact on firefighting efforts and has relieved the local fire department from being tied up at the scene. If the company’s efforts continue to diminish the fire, a specialized contractor may not be necessary.”
Christina Ramer, Trevorton fire assistant chief, said on Monday it took 20 to 25 minutes to drive off the mountain and another 15 to 20 minutes to fill the tanker. The relief from the mine fire site was welcomed and eased concerns of an emergency occurring in Zerbe Township while the company volunteers were tied up on the mountain, Ramer said.
Tri-County’s tankers can carry up to 5,000 gallons and dump a load in about 90 seconds compared to Trevorton Fire’s 1,400-gallon tanker that takes between 15 and 20 minutes to release its own haul, according to DEP and Ramer, who also is the emergency management director for Zerbe Township.
Tri-County is dropping three to five loads in an hour while Trevorton Fire was only capable to make one drop each hour, Ramer said.
One quote received
DEP received one quote late Monday evening from a specialized firefighting contractor who would attempt, if necessary, to extinguish the fire using PFAS-free firefighting foam or inert gas. PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that can be found in certain firefighting foams. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, exposure to PFAS can cause negative health effects like a risk of thyroid disease and testicular, kidney and bladder cancers.
If this phase becomes necessary, it will entail a significantly increased cost to mobilize tanks, pumps, piping, hosing, and water to the site to allow for a continuous, high-volume application of water containing PFAS-free firefighting agents, Lehman said.
“That proposal is currently under review,” said Lehman. “If the current high-volume water application efforts continue to diminish the fire, a specialized contractor may not be necessary.”
DEP is utilizing funds from Pennsylvania’s annual Abandoned Mine Land (AML) grant from the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). According to OSMRE’s website, the AML program is authorized in Title IV of the Surface Mining Law. States with an approved program are eligible for AML grants. The funds come from fees paid by active coal mine operators on each ton of coal mined, said Lehman.
At a public meeting on Tuesday, the Northumberland County Commissioners unanimously approved a motion to allow the state DEP access to the property in Zerbe Township for reclamation work that includes the extinguishing of the mine fire outside Trevorton. Solicitor Frank Garrigan said the state needs written permission for its own records because the county owns the land.
Commissioner Joe Klebon said county and state officials have been discussing the best plan of action. The current plan is working, Klebon said.
“Right now we have big tankers trucks dumping a lot of work on this fire,” said Klebon. “The last I heard this morning is it’s doing a pretty good job of putting this fire out.”
If the water plan doesn’t work, Klebon said the next two options are PFAS-free firefighting foam or inert gas to smother the fire.
“We’re not at that point yet,” said Klebon. “There’s a lot being done and still being done.”
He praised those responders who are working to extinguish the fire, noting that the Trevorton Fire Company’s brush truck and two other fire companies’ equipment were damaged due to the steep and rocky roads to the mine site.
Commissioner Kymberley Best said the public should stay away from the area for safety reasons.
“Don’t go around that area,” said Best. “It’s not the time for gathering up there or taking selfies. It’s really dangerous. It’s not stable.”
It’s unclear how extensive the fire is or how far it extends underground, so the best course of action is to not come near the area at all, said Best.