Burning coal veins being monitored, rememberedMedora resident Mary Ellison remembers the burning coal veins vividly when she was younger.
By: Royal McGregor, The Dickinson Press
Medora resident Mary Ellison remembers the burning coal veins vividly when she was younger.
When Ellison, who grew up in Beach, drove through Medora, she said the flames were never seen, but there would be smoke coming out of the ground.
“I was always able to smell coal burning,” Ellison said. “I can see why General Sully came through in the 1800s said the Badlands are like ‘hell with the fires put out.’ There were areas where the smoke would hang a little bit. It’s kind of nostalgic talking about it. It was always unique.”
On Wednesday, the North Dakota Public Service Commission came out with a press release that it will be suppressing burning coals seams on the Little Missouri National Grassland over the few weeks in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, Dakota Prairie Grasslands.
Doug Ellison, who’s been the mayor of Medora since June of 2008, said he hasn’t seen a burning coal vein before, but hears stories from his wife, Mary, and reads descriptions in books.
“I’ve got some good historic descriptions of them in books and old newspaper articles, but personally I’ve never seen one,” Doug said. “I don’t know of anything that are active right now.”
There are coal veins running through the western half of North Dakota including Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Eileen Andes, the chief of interpretation at TRNP, said the park monitors on a week basis if a coal vein ignites.
“We have had burning coal veins in the park and they are a natural part of the ecosystem in the Badlands,” Andes said. “When we have one in the park, we keep an eye on it. Depending on where it is and what the weather conditions are we’ll monitor it or put out the vegetation.”
Coal seam fires are ignited by fires burning through areas where a coal seam is exposed to heat and flame. These fires can burn for many years following underground coal seams. As the coal burns, the ground collapses and vent holes are formed that provide oxygen to the fire, creating conditions for further spread. There are concerns with public safety and potential for burning coal seams to ignite surrounding vegetation and cause additional fires.
With winter continuing to pour down on North Dakota, the thoughts on fire aren’t eminent, but can happen.
“The coal can smolder underground if it has sufficient oxygen,” Andes said. “When the coal burns out will collapse and cause a sink hole. At this time of year, we don’t have to worry about vegetation catching fire, because with the snow cover. A fire spreading in the conditions we have right now are favorable to not burn at this point in time.”