Money is holding up plans to extinguish a fire that has been burning for more than 40 years in the Streeter Mine near Axial Basin in southern Moffat County.
According to Dave Bucknam, project supervisor for the Division of Minerals and Geology Inactive Mine Program, it would cost more than $1.25 million to put out the fire, without a guarantee of success.
The division made plans to finish an environmental assessment and make plans for a project to extinguish the fire, but further investigation has shown the project may be unfeasible.
The Streeter Mine has had its share of problems. In 1951, it collapsed because of the "room and pillar" way it was mined. According to Bruce Stover, senior mining geologist with the division, workers mined two seams in the Streeter Mine, one right above the other. After miners cleaned out the top seam, they began work on the bottom seam, 25-feet below the top one. When opening up the bottom seam, miners didn't line the pillars that held the roof up with the pillars along the top seam. The collapse was caused when the pillars from the top seam broke through the bottom seam and, according to Stover, "that was the end of the Streeter Mine."
"Everyone who was living near there was rocked," Stover said.
The collapse happened at night, so no one was injured, but the mining company Colowyo Coal lost all its equipment.
Two years later, the mine caught fire. Officials believe the cause was spontaneous combustion.
"Coal can start burning without any igniting source other than warm air," Stover said.
Because of the method originally used to mine the coal, 50 percent of the coal in the seam is still there. Stover calls it "waste coal" because now it is physically impossible to mine. That waste coal is what is feeding the fire. Stover said all indications are that the fire has not hit another seam of coal.
"It is possible it could eventually burn into unmined resources, but that could take decades," Stover said.
Officials calculate the fire is moving at a rate of 3 to 5 feet per year and is smoldering not a blaze.
Containing the fire would mean getting ahead of it and corralling it. Stover doesn't see any possibility of ever extinguishing it.
"It's too deep in the ground and there are too many complicating factors," he said. "Because of the situation, the risk-to-success factor is too high."
"It's like fighting a forest fire in a raging blizzard," Bucknam said. "You can't see what you're doing."
The mine shaft is an estimated 250 feet underground and the only sure way to put out the fire, Stover said, is to physically dig it out and extinguish it.
"We need to answer a lot of questions before committing to go forward," Bucknam said. "This issue is not just safety, it's really a resource issue and the wasting of that resource."
One of the questions is whether there will be mining on the site in the future. Bucknam said if there are plans to mine the seam, the division will do some work, but if there are no plans to mine the seam, it won't.
At issue is the high cost of containing the fire. According to Bucknam, the division can close 250 to 300 other open mine shafts for the $1.25 million price tag the Streeter Mine carries.
Bucknam said the division has received no clear answer on whether the mine will be reopened. If there are no plans to reopen the mine, the division could come in and close the open vents and shafts for safety reasons.
The Streeter Mine fire is not a risk to residents, Stover said. It is on patrolled private property not near any homes.
The Streeter Mine fire is not the only one of its kind. According to Stover, there are six to 12 abandoned mine fires in Colorado and hundreds across the United States.