WHAT LIES BENEATH: Researchers Turning Attention To Underground Coal Fires

Jun 7, 2014

Mike Lynch, with the Kentucky Geological Survey has this story about underground coal fires and the trouble they can cause.

Coal is mined and burned as a fuel all around the world. And wherever it’s mined, there is at least a chance that underground coal fires start…and sometimes burn for a very long time. Researchers at the UK Center for Applied Energy Research are gathering information on such fires in Kentucky.

Greg Copley and Jim Hower arrive at a steep cliff on the side of a mountain in Perry County… Smoke and the smell of burning coal occasionally waft from natural vents in the ground around them and a student assistant. An underground coal fire is burning here… it’s one of about 30 known in Kentucky. People living nearby first reported this one.

A number of things can start the fires, from forest and grassland fires igniting exposed coal beds, to arson, … even spontaneous ignition under some conditions. According to Hower, thousands of uncontrolled coal fires are burning beneath the surface around the world.

The research team unloads equipment at the Perry County site—called the Lott’s Creek fire—preparing steel canisters for gas samples, tools to gather soil for lab analysis, and digital heat sensors. 

Some of the coal fires in the U.S. have been burning for decades…even centuries…And they’re tough to put out.

Long-lasting fires can impact people and communities…. From smoke that reduces visibility…the release of harmful gases, causing respiratory issues … and weakening of the ground that can cause collapses. An abandoned town in Pennsylvania—once home to 2,700 people—is an infamous example.

The research at Lott’s Creek also helps with work done by East Georgia College scientists studying how coal fires affect insect life. UK Master’s student Michelle Johnston says participating in this project adds experience to her education.

Hower fills several vacuum canisters with gases from a vents at the site before packing up. He’s been investigating these fires since 2007… and says conditions like the amount of smoke and ground temperatures change from one visit to the next.

Jim Hower probes an underground coal fire in Perry County
Jim Hower probes an underground coal fire in Perry County
Credit Mike Lynch