Who deals with coal fires?

by Glenn B. Stracher
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Currently (and historically), most people who deal with underground coal fires and gob fires are employed by government agencies, mining and engineering companies, and firefighting agencies. Today, as in the past, these institutions undertake various responsibilities that include recording the location of coal fires, tracking their progression, and extinguishing the most problematic ones, if physically and economically feasible.

In the United States, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM), headquartered in Washington, D.C., is responsible for recording the number and location of U.S. coal fires. When states and Native American tribes discover coal fires on their lands, they send the location and estimated reclamation costs (if known) to the OSM Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System (AMLIS).

States and tribes that have Abandoned Mine Land Program offices are eligible to receive reclamation funds and are responsible for obtaining the contracts for and performing reclamation, including extinguishing coal fires. OSM is in charge of the reclamation programs in non-program states, which may also receive reclamation funds.

In June, AMLIS documented 106 underground fires burning in Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, and 86 surface fires burning in Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. But in reality, the number is probably far higher. Bureaucracy and the challenge of reporting the fires and working through the paper trail prevent a lot of fires from being reported in a timely manner.

During the past 10 years, there has been a global surge in the number of scientists and engineers employed in private industry, non-mining government agencies and academia who are investigating these fires. Some researchers are devoted to identifying coal fires by utilizing remote sensing technology, others to devising firefighting techniques, and still others to quantifying coal-fire emissions.

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