Sutton Coal Fires Still Burn After 50 Years

A coal fire has burned for fifty years in Alaska.  Learn how to protect coal-fired power plants from a similar fate.

Just two miles north on Jonesville Road in Sutton, an underground fire migrates through abandoned coal mines.

In 2006, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources spent $3.3 million on extinguishing the coal fires on a 45 acre lot in Sutton. Less than a quarter mile away from that 45 acres is a coal fire that is still burning.

"They're from probably spontaneous combustion of coal flames that are just a few percent in content," Department Hydrologist Roger Allely said. "Many people think it's just from being compacted closely together and perhaps the heat of the sun sets it off or combustible materials."

Ireys says the state can't step in to extinguish these fires due to land permitting rights.

"We can't use our funds on an active permit," Ireys said. "We wouldn't mind coming in and putting out as well, but we can't, it's on an active permit."

But some people think the underground fires should be extinguished because of potential dangers they may pose to the community. Tim Leach is a director for the non-profit group Envision Mat-Su and he believes these coal fires create environmental problems.

"Coal mining is a dirty industry," Leach said. "It's something that causes a lot of health problems. If you have the coal seams underground that are allowed to continue to burn the concerns of subsidence, the concerns of habitat destruction, the concerns of that spreading and potentially forest fires happening is there."

Former Department of Agriculture soil scientist Mark Clark says the negative health impact from these underground coal fires could be far reaching.

"If we have coal fires or any other sort of contaminant in that area within a very short period of time that material can potentially show up in the drinking water in the Palmer area or the residences surrounding the coal mine itself," Clark said.

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