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Coal seam fires have burned for more than 100 years at old Colorado coal mines, including in South Canyon near Glenwood Springs, where smoke and steam are constantly visible just off a trail. New federal infrastructure money is coming to help Colorado finally extinguish some ancient embers. (Colorado Department of Natural Resources file photo)

Colorado will get $10 million in new federal infrastructure money to combat decades-old coal seam fires like those on Marshall Mesa and in Glenwood Springs that periodically flare up and wreak havoc, state officials said Tuesday. 

The new funding more than triples Colorado’s existing federal budget for all coal mine cleanup efforts, and will be largely focused on combating the seam fires dating before 1977, the Department of Natural Resources said. State officials called the massive increase a “game changer” in their fight, saying it will protect threatened communities and support mining-related jobs in a declining industry. 

“In the past, we really only had sufficient funding to do a Band-Aid type approach,” said Jeff Graves, director of Active and Inactive Mines in the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. 

Colorado has been monitoring dozens of coal seam fires around the state for decades. When money is available or flare-ups happen, state and local officials try to mitigate with everything from gravel dumps into open vents, to excavation, to injection of inflammable materials as barriers. 

Front Range fire officials have said they are investigating coal fires from old mines long burning along Marshall Mesa as a potential cause of the late December Marshall fire, which burned nearly 1,100 homes and was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. Marshall Mesa coal was the culprit in grass fires in previous years, officials have said. They are also investigating other leads, including reports of residents along U.S. 93 having burned trash in the days before the outbreak. Boulder County windstorms topping 90 mph can blow up coal embers and spread quickly in dried out grasslands. 

Smoldering coal deposits were identified as the cause of the 2002 Coal Seam fire outside Glenwood Springs, which burned 29 homes across 12,000 acres. The ongoing coal fires continue to vent smoke and steam near the city landfill in the South Canyon area, and new flare-ups are a constant worry for town residents and officials, said Mayor Jonathan Godes. 

The old seams are a “ticking time bomb,” Godes said, and previous levels of spending haven’t been enough to slow down the fires. 

The new federal reclamation money will be enough to make serious efforts on some of the most troublesome fires in the state, Graves said, including Marshall Mesa and Glenwood Springs. 

Of 38 monitored fires, some burning for more than 100 years, he said, only one was called “extinguished,” and department officials hedge their bets even on that one, he added. 

The new funding could add $10 million a year for up to 15 years for Colorado, Graves said. 

The large amount “will be a game changer for our abandoned mine work in Colorado,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, in a statement with Colorado’s Democratic U.S. senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper. 

Extinguishing coal seam fires  usually requires excavation of burning coal to separate smoldering material from other fuel, Graves said. The Marshall Mesa fires are shallow enough that new money can adequately fund excavation work in many places, once agreements with landowners are worked out, he said. 

The fires in the Glenwood Springs area are in steeper terrain, up canyons, and cross more difficult territory for firefighters. Some excavation can be done there, but the new funding will also pay for drilling and injection of grout to build containment walls for the underground burning. Other methods have included drilling and injecting with non-PFAS firefighting foam

The language of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would allow other forms of coal mine mitigation. Colorado has serious problems with methane leakage from current and abandoned mines; the methane causes fire and health dangers but also contributes an outsize portion to greenhouse gas accumulation.

But for Colorado, Graves said, “our anticipation is that we will spend the vast majority of that funding on addressing historical mine fires.” 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...