By Lynne Glover
The sign outside the Youngstown Hotel reads "Federal Buyout or Put the Fire Out." In this Fayette County town where an underground mine fire has burned for more than 30 years, this is the prevailing sentiment.
Residents of Youngstown in North Union Township worry about losing their homes to the smoldering danger known as the Percy Mine Fire, and about inhaling the fly ash-based substance being used to plug openings to the fire.
Some won't plant gardens, figuring that the firefighting foam pumped by the ton into the mine could contaminate groundwater and soil. Others fear the fire will cause subsidence that will shift natural gas lines, causing an explosion.
Homes in Youngstown are worthless, residents argue, as they put increasing pressure on the federal and state governments to extinguish the fire or to arrange a sweeping buyout like the one that practically took fire-ravaged Centralia, Columbia County, off the map 14 years ago.
Neither scenario appears likely. While more than $1 billion sits in a trust fund for mine cleanups across the country, most of the money is unavailable for its intended purpose because it is being used to balance the federal budget.
The federal Office of Surface Mining and the state Department of Environmental Protection has lobbied to spend more of this reserve, built by a 35-cent tax on each ton of coal mined nationwide.
"But Congress will not give it all out," said Rick Balogh, an OSM project manager who oversees containment of the Percy fire.
U.S. Rep. John Murtha said, "We'll face a major fight again this year just in maintaining our current level of funding in the abandoned mine lands trust fund program."
The Johnstown Democrat said he'd fight to maintain or even increase mine-related spending, but the chances of getting more money in the next federal budget "are frankly not good."
Since the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund went into effect in 1977, about $3.5 billion of the $4.7 billion collected has been spent.
In 1997, the fund took in $347 million although appropriations totaled just $208 million. Last year, Pennsylvania received $21 million from the fund.
While the money is earmarked for problems relating to abandoned mines, it's not available until appropriated by Congress, said Alan Cole, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Department of the Interior. Budget figures ending in fiscal 1999 project a fund balance of nearly $1.5 billion.
OSM Director Kathy Karpan has been "quite vocal" in making the case for more abandoned mine land spending for fiscal 2000, said Cole. "But she does not have the final say."
OSM now spends $3.5 to $4 million in Pennsylvania each year on emergency mine-related problems, including underground fires. Most of that money goes toward subsidence problems, with some going toward projects to control or extinguish mine fires and to keep deadly gases from invading homes.
Extinguishing all the abandoned mine fires nationwide would cost more than $650 million, and one estimate to put out the Percy fire alone ranges from $30 million to $40 million.
Still, about 60 homes sit above the Percy fire, and this sets the Youngstown problem apart from many of the 45 other underground mine fires burning across Pennsylvania.
"Typically you only see one or a few homes affected directly by these fires," Balogh said. "These people are worried, and I don't blame them a bit because that is their lives down there."
Typically invisible from the surface, mine fires are tricky as they travel through tunnels carved in coal seams decades ago. They're persistent but unpredictable, and difficult and expensive to extinguish.
Sadly, most could have been prevented.
"About 10 or 12 years ago, most of the fires were started by people burning trash" in rural pits where the coal seam runs close to the surface, explained Steve Jones, who oversees many of the emergency projects the OSM handles for the DEP.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, Allegheny County has five underground mine fires that the DEP is monitoring or working to extinguish. One fire burns in Westmoreland County, and four others besides the Percy fire burn in Fayette County.
Still, the area has suffered mine fires for centuries. Around 1772, a fire burned for more than a year atop what now is Mt. Washington.
Pennsylvania, with more than 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, has more than a third of the nation's mine-related geological problems. The DEP estimated that the state's coal mining heritage has left it with a $15 billion cost to solve all its mine-related problems - acid drainage and subsidence, in addition to fires.
While fires account for only about 5 percent of the OSM's emergency workload, they create some of the most serious coal mining-related problems.
In addition to the danger of the fire spreading to homes and wooded areas, subsidence can occur when the blaze consumes the thick coal pillars left to help support the tunnels.
Also problematic are carbon monoxide gases and other toxic fumes that can rise from the ground and seep into buildings, possibly asphyxiating people inside or causing long-term respiratory problems.
The Youngstown residents complain that the OSM's efforts to deal with the Percy Mine Fire simply aren't good enough, and haven't been for a long time.
In 1984, the federal agency spent $2.4 million to excavate seven acres of land and extinguish part of the fire, and to install an underground clay barrier between the remaining fire and the community's houses.
Now, nearly 15 years later, the fire is burning around the barrier and another $2 million is being spent to divert the problem once again. The goal is to further encircle the fire, entrapping it, "so that there is less of a chance that it will come back to haunt us," Balogh explained.
But resident Bud Schnatterly asked OSM representatives at a recent meeting on the problem, "Why can't this fire be extinguished?" Eventually, he said, the blaze might make its way to nearby Uniontown or to Penn State's Fayette campus, he said, urging, "Either strip it out, or buy us out."
State Sen. Richard Kasunic, a Democrat from Dunbar, has recommended that the OSM and DEP strip mine around the perimeter of the fire, because this is the only way to guarantee it will be extinguished.
Balogh of the OSM said he believes the current work will contain - but not extinguish - the fire by the end of this summer. "But when it comes to fighting mine fires, there are no guarantees," he said.
Lois Minnick is one resident who wants a guarantee - especially after learning last week that an area supposedly fire-free actually is not.
"When they flipped the lid off of that pipe cap," Minnick said, referring to a plugged bore hole, "the heat, stink, smoke, you name it, that came out of that mine fire hole was a shock to us. We were not expecting this. The smell and the site of it alone is horrible, repulsive, like rotten eggs. It scared me."
Minnick has lived in Youngstown for 14 years, and she and her husband recently tried to sell their home. But last month, a mortgage company turned down a prospective buyer after learning the house was in a mine fire area.
In all, DEP estimates about 1,300 acres across the state are on fire underground.
One fire is in Allegheny County's Boyce Park in Plum. It's a relatively tiny, slow-moving blaze in a steep, wooded area not used for recreation. But because it is burning in a public park it's on the DEP's priority list, Jones said.
"You really have to look for signs of burning," he said. "There's only one small area with smoke venting on the 1.5 acre site. It's not a serious fire, and there are no dwellings, so it is unlikely that people will be overcome by gases, but I don't like it" so work is being planned to extinguish it.
A few miles away is the Renton Mine Fire, also in Plum, which has been burning for more than 15 years and affects 15-20 mostly undeveloped acres.
"We are always out in Renton," said Claude Downing, an OSM team leader based in Green Tree. "There's a huge fire out there, and we hope someone goes out there and digs out that fire so we don't have to keep on responding to these gas problems."
One household there is being exposed to carbon monoxide gas.
"The carbon monoxide readings are staying low enough that it wasn't acutely life-threatening," said Balogh. The homeowners will remain as the OSM backfills hundreds of subsidence-caused depression areas on a 4.5-acre section of the land. The work, which is expected to trap the gases, eliminating danger, should be done by July.
Although the OSM considers Renton an "unstable area," it is low on DEP's priority list because there are no homes directly above the fire.
Two fires are burning in Findlay Township, one near Clinton and one located on a hilltop off Route 60 - just several thousand feet south of the Pittsburgh International Airport runways.
There was some concern about 12 years ago that smoke coming off this fire could obscure vision on the airport runway, said Jones. This no longer appears to be a worry as the DEP has not been called back to extinguish the small blaze.
"And it's not a priority because of the lack of dwellings," Jones added.
In nearby Clinton, one home is directly above the abandoned mine that is burning, but it isn't above the current fire area. Given enough time, though, the fire is likely to move under the home, Jones said.
"It's a slow burner," he noted. "We're currently pursuing determining who owns the property so we can do fire control work." Because the home is a good distance from the burning area, this fire is below the one in Boyce Park on the priority list.
West Elizabeth has the Tepe Pump Station Mine Fire, although there are no visible surface effects. Numerous monitoring holes have been drilled, and the burn area has been estimated at as large as 100 acres.
"There's an enormous amount of cover there, several hundred feet," Jones said, referring to the amount of earth above the mine void. This cover will help prevent the fire from causing too much surface damage, although two major natural gas lines run near the area.
Utility officials, however, "assured us that the gas line would not be affected by a subsidence event" because major transmission lines are designed to withstand this trauma. "I'm not particularly concerned about gas transmission line problems, from either fire or subsidence."
Many of southwestern Pennsylvania's other underground mine fires are in isolated areas. Most, such as the ones that burn in Newell and Vanderbilt, Fayette County, pose no threat to any dwellings, Jones said.