OLYPHANT — Coal made the Lackawanna and Wyoming valleys the hot place to be for jobs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, it’s still making the region hot as no fewer than eight underground mine fires are burning from Carbondale to Newport Township.
The issue has not been taken seriously enough by the state Department of Environmental Protection, according to Rep. Kevin Haggerty, D-Dunmore and several officials in Olyphant where one of the fires has been burning for close to a decade.
During a public meeting Haggerty organized inside the Eureka Hose Company in Olyphant on Thursday, Haggerty said he wrote a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett the day prior urging him to declare Luzerne and Lackawanna counties “disaster areas” so federal and state funding could be freed up to help extinguish the fires.
Three of those fires, all in Luzerne County, are designated as serious by the Department of Environmental Protection meaning occupied structures are less than 1,000 feet away. The other five are classified as moderate, meaning occupied structures are at least 1,000 feet away.
DEP has given official names to the fires. According to DEP files, the eight burning in Lackawanna or Luzerne counties are:
• Ball Field East, Newport Township. Serious.
• Mordecai, in Laurel Run. Serious.
• Sturdevant-Metcalf, in Laurel Run. Serious.
• Dolph, in Olyphant. Moderate.
• Hanover Reservoir, Hanover Township. Moderate.
• Powderly Creek Northeast, in Carbondale. Moderate.
• Summit Gardens, in Carbondale. Moderate.
• Warrior Gap, Warrior Run. Moderate.
DEP Northeast Region spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said that DEP is aware of each of the fires and “we’re working on design plans for some and funding for others, but these things take time.”
Time, said Haggerty, is something neighbors of these fires do not have. For years, decades in some cases, these coal seams have continued to burn. But the state and federal governments have yet to formulate a final plan to address extinguishing these public health hazards.
Standing inside the Eureka Hose Company, less than a mile from the fire designated as “Dolph” by DEP, Haggerty called for funding to help extinguish the fires while imploring the governor and federal government to recognize the environmental hazard the fires present to the community.
“We have seen what happened in places such as Centralia, where we let an underground mine fire get out of hand,” Haggerty said, referring to the Columbia County town where a 1962 mine fire led the government to force almost all residents to leave the town by the early 1980s. Today, fewer than 10 remain and the fire continues to burn.
Connolly said while she agrees the fires need to be addressed, she believed the Centralia reference is an unfair comparison.
“In these eight mine fires, in no way are we looking at a situation like Centralia,” she said. She said cost estimates of getting the eight fires under control is still being figured out but it’s “in the millions, many millions.” She said each fire could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to extinguish.
Olyphant Councilman Jerry Tully, who first discovered the Dolph fire, spoke at length during the 90-minute session about the negative impacts that particular fire has had on the borough, citing health, property value and economic development as examples. He said what could have been fixed with a $100,000 project nine years ago will now cost millions.
He said DEP has stopped listening to him and he believes more pressure, especially from those communities impacted by the fires, will be the only thing that leads to a solution. He urged residents from those towns, plus the counties and the legislators serving those municipalities to band together and force DEP and the state to take action before it’s too late.
Valerie Caras, a spokeswoman for the governor, said “DEP is reaching out to the legislators and will discuss this issue further with them.”