OLYPHANT — Coal heated up the Lackawanna and Wyoming valleys’ job market decades ago, and 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 officials in Olyphant, where one of the fires has been burning for nearly a decade.
During a public meeting Haggerty organized in Olyphant on Thursday, he said he has written a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett 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 state 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 the agency is aware 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 the public health hazards, he said.
Standing inside the Eureka Hose Company, less than a mile from the fire designated by DEP as “Dolph,” Haggerty called for funding to help extinguish the fires while imploring the governor and federal government to recognize the health and safety hazards.
“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 by the early 1980s. Today, fewer than 10 remain and the fire continues to burn.
Connolly said that while she agrees the fires must be addressed, she believes 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 are still being figured out, but it’s “in the millions, many millions.” She said each fire could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to extinguish.
Olyphant Councilman Jerry Tully, who first discovered the Dolph fire, spoke at length 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.
Valerie Caras, a spokeswoman for the governor, said “DEP is reaching out to the legislators and will discuss this issue further with them.”