Coal continues burning at Utah mine as company tries to drill for answers

Federal officials say Lila Canyon is not safe to enter and could burn for weeks, or even longer

(Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining) Utah’s Lila Canyon coal mine, located in Emery County’s section of the Book Cliffs, caught fire Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, and continues to burn as the mine operator attempts to drill into the mine to help devise a plan for putting out the fire burning in a coal pillar.

A Utah coal mine burning underground since Sept. 20 is still too dangerous to enter and it could be weeks or even longer before the fire is out and the mine resumes coal production, federal officials said Friday.

Mine operators are now trying to drill into the burning Lila Canyon mine in hopes of devising a plan for putting out a fire that is filling the underground mine with potentially hazardous gasses and indefinitely disrupting operations at Utah’s most productive coal mine, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. While still uncertain about the cause of the fire, officials are concerned that accumulating gases could cause an explosion.

The operator is Emery County Coal Resources (ECCR), a subsidiary of Ohio-based American Consolidated Natural Resources (ACNR), which has not responded to repeated requests for comment. ACNR is the reorganized company that emerged from the bankruptcy filed by Murray Energy, which owns several Utah mines.

The company reported the fire Sept. 20 to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, of MSHA, which immediately ordered the mine’s closure and the evacuation of all personnel.

In underground coal mining, operators cut through coal seams leaving behind pillars of coal to hold up the mine ceiling. At Lila Canyon, one of these pillars caught fire, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM, meanwhile, granted emergency approval on Sept. 28 for the operator to drill up to four 4-inch-diameter boreholes needed to access the mine so that its air can be sampled and flame-suppressing gasses injected inside, according to newly posted documents.

“Evaluating the mine atmosphere will allow ECCR to come up with a plan to extinguish the fire by monitoring gas concentrations and possibly injecting nitrogen and or other compounds through the boreholes,” states the BLM’s Sept. 28 decision, signed by acting Price field office manager Kyle Beagley. “These boreholes will allow ECCR to make the mine safe to access and repair any damage caused by the fire and assure a return to safe operations.”

Coal mine fires have been known to burn for years, resulting in catastrophic environmental damage and social impacts, according to U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Getting the boreholes drilled is a vital first step toward assessing the dangers of entering the mine and coming up with a plan.

“To gather this information ECCR would utilize existing road where possible or construct a temporary road to access the drill sites. Track-mounted equipment would be used to drill one four-inch borehole into the mine workings at each location,” the BLM documents state. “ECCR anticipates the drilling equipment would occupy the drill site for approximately 7–10 days.”

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Labor Department officials filled in the details. The company began drilling Thursday morning, but it has 1,200 vertical feet of rock and dirt to penetrate before it reaches the mine’s interior, so it could take a few days, a spokesperson said. It took ACNR so long to begin drilling because it had to truck in a drill rig from West Virginia.

The goal of the drilling program is to sample the mine’s air for the presence of three gasses which are indicators of dangerous conditions.

“What are the results for oxygen and methane, because we know in combination they are a bad combination. They can be explosive and lead to an explosion,” the spokesperson said. “And we would also be looking at carbon monoxide because elevated carbon monoxide is the indication of the heat event in the first place.”

Operating on public land in Emery County in Utah’s Book Cliffs, Lila Canyon is known as a “sponcom” mine, meaning it has a history of spontaneous combustions, said officials with the Labor Department, MSHA’s parent agency. MSHA is overseeing the emergency response undertaken by the mine operator. Officials still don’t know what triggered the fire or how far it has spread, if at all.

“Our goal is to ensure the safety of the miners. But it’s the operator’s responsibility in terms of submitting a plan to put out the fire. That could be a while,” the Labor Department spokesperson said. “As we sit here, we don’t know where [the fire] is or if it has advanced.”