Less than 4 miles from the Pittsburgh International Airport, a nearly 30-year-old mine fire continues to burn underground.

The fire, located northeast of the intersection of Camp Meeting and Matchette roads in Findlay, spans about 1.5 acres. Although this is a rural community, the mine fire sits near a couple of residences.

A public report initially alerted the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation of the underground mine fire in 1993. Its cause remains undetermined to this day, said Jamar Thrasher, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The mine fire appears to be limited to a small number of residential properties in the vicinity of Matchette Road, Thrasher told the Union Progress.

“Localized impacts may include high ground and subsurface temperatures, noxious gases, ground subsidence, ground cracking, as well as distressed and/or burned vegetation,” he said. “Gases and malodors can migrate both through the subsurface mine workings and through the atmosphere.”

Thrasher said such gases and malodors are more of a nuisance than a hazard, but the gases can become hazardous when migrating and potentially concentrate in a confined space, so people should try and avoid areas of suspected underground mine fires.

The term “mine fire” refers to the starting point of the fire, not that the mine itself is not on fire. Instead, the remaining coal pillars, remaining coal seam, poor quality coal or burnable debris left behind is what burns, according to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Causes can include uncontrolled burning of refuse by individuals, surface fires initiated by lightning strikes and spontaneous combustion of coal seams under certain conditions. 

The Clinton mine fire is in the Pittsburgh coal seam, a coal bed that sometimes creates opportune moments for fires to ignite.

Following an inquiry in 1993, federal officials performed an emergency project on the Clinton fire, which involved a flushing of the roadway and was completed that year.

Four years later, the state completed a preliminary round of exploratory drilling, which established 22 boreholes and monitoring well installations. The federal government finished another emergency project the same year that included a small excavation and surface seal of compacted clay.

Besides regular temperature monitoring of boreholes by the state government, the mine fire saw little activity for 25 years until 2020.

Three years ago, a surface seal was installed across a limited area along the north side of Matchette Road to treat observed venting and smoking in that area following an inquiry in 2019, Thrasher said. More monitoring wells were installed, and the state completed an emergency drilling and grouting project in 2021 to mitigate risks of the underground fire traveling toward a nearby residence.

Tony Timulak points to different places in the ground on his property in Findlay where workers drilled boreholes in an attempt to extinguish an underground mine fire. (Hannah Wyman/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Tony Timulak has lived on the hill of the 70 block of Matchette Road for 20 years, and said he isn’t too concerned about the mine fire underneath his home.

Although he was unaware of the fire when he moved in, Timulak said it wouldn’t have deterred him from living on Matchette Road. After nearly two decades of living in California, with its notorious earthquakes, an underground mine fire that was somewhat hidden seemed easy to deal with.

Mostly, he just sees smoke on certain days.

“In the wintertime when it’s cold you’ll see a white mist coming out of [the ground],” Timulak said. Besides the smoke, Timulak can’t name any impacts he’s experienced from the fire.

The retired truck driver said he likes Clinton because it is so quiet. Around him are only three or four other houses, all separated by trees or long stretches of land. 

Timulak said his landlord has mine subsidence insurance, and he himself has renters insurance just in case. 

He recalled seeing workers coming in and out over the past few years to perform work on the land surrounding his home. He said he observed teams monitoring wells, labeling and assessing different areas of grass and piping concrete underground.

“They come out here two years ago,” Timulak said. “These dudes were ruthless. They had drilling machines, and they worked in snow, rain, no matter what it was like they worked and drilled holes, and then they filled it all up with concrete but didn’t seal it because it still smokes.”

Pointing to a pile of gravel on the side of Matchette Road, Timulak said he remembered when the area used to smoke and smell of sulfur.

“Neighbors would complain,” he said. “[Workers] came out here with trucks of concrete, pour it in. It would stop for a month or two. Finally, the department would come out here, and they wanted to drill to find out where it’s at and fill it with concrete.”

Down the hill at the 70 block of Camp Meeting Road is Linda S. Linda, who did not give her full last name, has lived there for 35 years, a handful of years prior to public knowledge of the mine fire. She called the mine fire a nuisance but recognized the work done by the state to try and address any potential spread.

Sitting on her back porch on a Thursday afternoon, she pointed to a mass of trees and shrubbery in her neighbor’s backyard and toward Timulak’s house. A handful of trees had sunken into the hill because of the fire, but the state had come in and fixed the “brunt of it,” she said. 

“They just sunk down,” she explained. “The ground gave out. It just sucked it all down.”

“So far, knock on wood, there’s nothing that popped up in our yard,” she added. “It smokes still … but what am I going to do about it?”

Despite being unafraid of her home’s proximity to the mine fire, she is still careful not to go anywhere near the sunken ground in case other parts of her lawn were to fall through as well. Even so, Linda said she has never considered moving because of the fire.

“They came in and took care of it, so they said, and every once in a while you can still see [smoke] but not nearly as bad as it used to be,” she said. 

According to Thrasher, a series of 27 boreholes were drilled across the site in 2021 and flushed with 343 tons of grout. From these efforts, it was discovered that a drilling and grouting project would not be a cost-effective way to extinguish the underground mine fire.

The site is now monitored periodically by the state as next steps are finalized, Thrasher said. An excavation and quenching project program is currently being developed by BAMR engineers and scientists.

“The recent significant increase in available funding levels through the bipartisan infrastructure law will now make it feasible for BAMR to pursue this more comprehensive solution for addressing the underground mine fire at some point in the future,” Thrasher said of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

View from Linda S.’s back porch on the 70 block of Camp Meeting Road in the Clinton part of Findlay where an underground mine fire is burning. (Hannah Wyman/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her hwyman@unionprogress.com.

Hannah Wyman

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her hwyman@unionprogress.com.