NEWBURG — An underground mine fire in southern Preston County “likely” jumped the barrier installed two years ago by the State Department of Environmental Protection.
The DEP plans to seek bids this year on another project to contain it. Abandoned Mine Lands and Reclamation Chief Rob Rice said the work will begin this summer.
The Brocum Mine No. 1 fire is south of Newburg, off Eliason Road. No one knows how it started, but residents complained from 2016 of the sulphur stench and smoke, and tests by the DEP showed it was more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit underground, in places.
In December 2016, Rice said, it had “grown much faster and become much larger than your typical coal fire.”
The state gave nearby residents carbon monoxide detectors. And in 2017, DEP Cabinet Secretary Austin Caperton came to Preston County to view the progress of a nine-month, $3.9 million project.
Terry Fletcher, public information specialist with the DEP, said last week the agency determined “the underground mine fire is still moving and has likely breached the area of containment.”
Rice said the DEP is going to use a new, nitrogen-based foaming agent, implemented in underground mine fires in Colorado, as part of the next phase. It will be injected into mine voids prior to grouting.
“The nitrogen is supposed to do a better job of displacing all the oxygen and help putting out the fire.”
Additional highwall will also be backfilled, and a trench about 500 feet long and 22 feet deep will be excavated. More than 4,000 linear feet of holes will be drilled and more than 2,000 yards of grout injected into the holes.
The DEP sought to contain the fire earlier by removing woody debris from the hills and filling cracks and fissures, hoping to stop wind from entering the mine.
“It’s very difficult to cut off all the pathways,” for oxygen to enter the fractured sandstone of the mine, Rice explained.
The DEP identified a couple cutoff areas for the work. “And we didn’t want to go to the furthest cutoff area first,” Rice said. “Because then we would knowingly be allowing the fire to burn in a larger area. So we started with the cutoff area nearest the fire.”
The DEP set aside $3 million for the project. That’s one-third of the total reclamation budget for this year. That does not include money DEP budgeted for water lines or emergencies. But already $3 million of the $5 million emergency budget has been spent abating subsidence and landslides.
It would cost more than $1 billion to abate all the mine fires in the state, Rice said. So DEP prioritizes those most likely to impact residents.
West Virginia has been doing mine lands reclamation for decades, he noted, “but if West Virginia were to receive every [AML] dollar that’s ever been made available for all the states and tribes, we would still have mine sites left on our inventory. And Pennsylvania and Kentucky could say the same thing.”
That’s the impact of pre-law mining on Appalachia, Rice said.
Fletcher said the DEP hired a consultant, did exploratory drilling and completed preliminary plans and specifications for the next project. It is also working to get state and federal permits.
The fire began four to seven years ago on private land. The DEP previously said it included 5 acres, 80 feet underground, but had damaged 14 acres above ground with heat and fumes.
Rice said if the nitrogen injection method is successful in Preston County, the DEP may try it on an underground fire in the White Hall area of Marion County.
Residents who live near the Brocum site told The Dominion Post they have not seen smoke or smelled sulphur recently.