Contractor Snuffs Out Underground Coal Mine Fires

Earthmovers Unlimited Inc. photo. For nine months, crews with Earthmovers Unlimited Inc. have labored cautiously to reach a coal fire 146 ft. (44.5 m) below the surface of the earth in Carbondale, Pa.

Tue October 04, 2016
Lori Tobias

For more than nine months, crews with Earthmovers Unlimited Inc. have labored cautiously to reach a coal fire 146 ft. (44.5 m) below the surface of the earth in Carbondale, Pa. At stake, 50 homes and the safety of all who reside within them.

“A community is built up on the edge of Carbondale and this fire is within 1,200 feet of many, many homes,” said John Niebauer Jr., president of Earthmovers, headquartered in Kylertown, Pa. “Allowed to continue, it would burn out and the homes would suddenly drop. The entire area around Carbondale has been mined. It would be difficult to build and not be near a mine. It is reputed that deep mine activities in the anthracite coal region started in the city of Carbondale or its environs in 1835. All evidence uncovered thus far would indicate the underground mining activities were probably in the 19th century.”

A fact sheet from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection describes the Powderly Creek Northeast Underground Mine Fire as consisting of approximately 108 acres of surface and underground mine land features on private property with the fire burning in about 25 acres.

“The project will reclaim 25 acres of underground mine fire by blasting, excavating and quenching approximately 2 million cu. yds. (1.5 million cu m) of material,” according to the DEP fact sheet. “Approximately 2,500 linear ft. (762 m) of highwall will be reclaimed. An additional 83 acres of adjacent surface-mined land may be reclaimed by grading. The site contributes polluted water to Powderly Creek, the mine pool and ultimately the Lackawanna River.”

Earthmovers crews have reached the fire, excavating 146 ft. (44.5 m) deep by 300 ft. (91.4 m) wide. They will continue excavating and extinguishing the fire in blocks, but don't anticipate completing the $9 million task until 2019.

“It is a huge hole to excavate just to get to the fire,” Niebauer said. “It runs under practically the whole northeast Pennsylvania. It has been mined heavily. We have 15 to 20 people working seven days a week. The challenge is getting that deep, and staying on schedule. There is a very aggressive earth-moving requirement to be met every month. The inspector thinks we are ahead of schedule. It is a daily challenge to meet that schedule.”

Workers must proceed slowly for safety, and also because they are working in a confined area.

“When you reach the coal, you can only put explosives off one charge at a time,” Niebauer said. “Where normally you would have 75 to 100 charges. Ninety percent of the entire project is solid rock and we are blasting that rock.”

The firm, founded nearly 50 years ago by Niebauer, holds the distinction of extinguishing more coal fires than any other firm in Pennsylvania, he said.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said we hold the record. This one is definitely deeper with much more excavation involved than any others. This project is atypical of any project that Earthmovers has undertaken.”

Earthmovers has the responsibility of moving well over 200,000 bank cu. yds. (152,910 cu m) per month for the duration of the approximate three-year project. The heavy equipment on site includes:

• (1) Komatsu PC2000 — 17 cu. yd. (13 cu m) excavator

• (1) Komatsu WA900-3EO rubber tire loader — 17.9 cu. yd. (13.7 cu m) bucket

• (5) Komatsu 785 100-ton (90.7 t) trucks

• (3) Cat 777D 100-ton trucks

• (1) Cat 992C rubber tire loader

• (1) Komatsu 8,000 gal. (30,283 L) water truck

• (1) Reich Drill truck-mounted Mdl. 650 drill

• (1) Reich Drill crawler-mounted drill

• Several pieces of support equipment

• 2 Komatsu 475A-5 bulldozers

Earthmovers also has constructed an onsite water system with a capacity to hold 500,000 gal. (1.8 million L) to use, along with fire retardant foam, to extinguish the fire.

“We constructed the huge pond at the lowest possible site on the project,” Niebauer said. “The pond collects rainwater. It's lined so the water doesn't leak off, and we've set up massive pumps. We use that pond for our water source, and we also supplement the rainwater with city water from a line we ran to the pond. If we get into a dry spell, as we are now, we use the supplemental city water.

While safety is a daily concern, there have been no problems to date, he said.

Earthmovers currently has about $26 million of earthmoving projects in Pennsylvania, Maryland and W. Virginia. One other project also is a coal fire, this one in Uniontown, Pa.

This story also appears on Construction Equipment Guide.