Steve Renner looked at a panorama that included a freshly dusted Sneffels Range and the blocky backlit summits in the Big Blue Wilderness. Yellow aspen and orange oaks competed for brightest color with an azure sky.
Renner stood on powdery black soil and introduced himself to a small caravan of heavy-equipment contractors, men he would soon lead on a site walk of the old Slagle/Bright Diamond coal mine at about 9,000 feet on the Cimarron Ridge northeast of Ridgway. The mine had been active only in the 1920s and 30s. But the coal underground has been burning, slowly, ever since. You could put your hand up to one of half a dozen vents in the ground and feel the warm air.
“This one looks underwhelming when you’re standing around kicking the dirt,” Renner said of the unassuming, 1.5-acre site. “But those big circular collapses? Those subsidences where the earth has caved in can provide oxygen to a fire. And then they can get very, very hot. Which leads to more hollowing out, more collapsing.”
And then you have a public health and safety issue. “Someone could fall through into the fire. Or it could start a wildfire,” he told me later. “And the hazard there is just infinite: in terms of dollars, firefighters, watershed damage, etc.”
Renner is Project Manager for the Inactive Mines Program of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. He’s a geologist by training. “But mine fires are kind of my specialty.”
There are 34 active coal mine fires in Colorado, he said on the drive up County Road 4. Most are within an hour or two of his office in Grand Junction. Many more have been capped and have stopped burning. Or gone dormant. The Slagle was given an eight-foot thick earthen cap in 1954, in an effort to suffocate it. But now it was back, the vents opening up, the fire breathing with new life.
The contractors were there for a pre-bid meeting, to research what they thought it would take in equipment and man-hours to suppress the fire. Again.
Renner, who is tall and boyish, with surprising white hair, led the way up, away from the pickups onto the hillside. The only remnants of the mining were a dilapidated “load-out” and off to the side a chinked log cabin with the glass still in its wooden window frames.
The first vents could have been big badger holes. But Christy Hulsman, with the federal Office of Surface Mining, warned me to stay back. “We don’t want a journalist falling through,” she said in a soft Kentucky accent. She’d only recently been transferred out West, to the Denver office, from her home state, where coal mines and mine fires are facts of life. “It’s got that smell,” she said, sniffing, unable to come up with a comparison for the sour stink. “It just smells like coal.”
Renner told the contractors that step one in the suppression job would be to fill the vents with dirt, by hand, “to try to choke them off, rather than just spread material over the top with a dozer.” Step two is to backfill the subsidence and vent features with big machines. Then they’ll need to construct a drainage ditch around the whole site and recontour and revegetate the surface.
How do you know a mine is burning without visiting every one of the hundreds of inactive mines around the state? Renner, of course, knows where all the old workings are. He flies around in a small airplane, in late fall or early spring when the snow cover is thin, and looks for “hot spots.” “Sometimes you see smoke,” said Ridgway’s Jeff Litteral, the project manager for the Slagle job. More often it’s just anomalous bare ground (warm earth) surrounded by white.
How do the fires start? “They can start with a lightning strike,” Renner said. “Or sometimes it may just be spontaneous combustion underground, given the right conditions. But usually it comes back to stupidity. Some miner was drunk and kicked over a lantern. Or they were cold and built a fire underground. There are all kinds of stories in the records.”
It’s not inexpensive to cap these old mine fires. “The only sure way to kill one,” Renner said, “is to dig it up.” But that would be far more expensive. Renner’s budget is “around $6 or $7 million a year.” Some of it is grant money from the federal government. The EPA can be involved because coal fires contribute lots of air pollution, CO2 and mercury, to the atmosphere. Most of the funding comes from taxes paid by active coal mines.
As we hiked the perimeter of the subsidence zones (some were as big as empty, Olympic-size swimming pools), I noticed one contractor apart from the others. He was wandering the edges, bending down and sticking his face right in various vents and possible vents. His name was Darnell Oxford. He was from Hotchkiss, and he told me later that he thought this fire could be extinguished simply by filling the vents and skipping the massive backfill required by the Bid Document.
“Darnell’s a smart guy,” Renner said, when I told him later about our chat. “He needs to believe that we’re taking the right approach. But you’re never going to find all the vents up there, all the cracks. The ‘engine’ that is the fire can just suck air through the soil if it’s not carefully choked off.”
On the way back down, through berry thickets and thistle (which typically invades disturbed, and maybe in this case, warmer soils), the group couldn’t help but take in, once again, the spectacular view.
My gaze bounced back and forth between the postcard skyline and the world immediately at my feet. There were vents off the right, black holes disappearing underground with oddly warm air wafting up out of them.