A pile of coal tailings sat for nearly 100 years without causing any difficulty. Now, a handful of agencies - from local to federal - have become involved in putting out a smoldering fire. Photo courtesy Department of Natural Resources

A pile of coal tailings sat for nearly 100 years without causing any difficulty. Now, a handful of agencies - from local to federal - have become involved in putting out a smoldering fire. Photo courtesy Department of Natural Resources

Pile of ‘coal tailings’ smolder at Cumberland

The fire has been going for more than eight weeks, and local, state, and federal government departments are involved in putting it out.

For nearly 100 years, a pile of low-grade coal sat on a gentle slope above the rural Cumberland community. It was inert and inconspicuous as Mother Nature covered the mound with brush and timber.

That all changed in early June, however, as smoke was spotted coming from a pile of “tailings” – the name for the low-grade, unused ore pulled from the ground during the coal mining process.

Now, nearly eight weeks later, smoke continues to waft from the hillside. Air quality is being monitored and remains in the safe zone, but the odor is sometimes acrid. And a multitude of agencies have become involved to some extent in the ongoing attempt to mitigate the mess.

A BIT OF BACKGROUND

Not too many miles northeast of Enumclaw, the Cumberland region was opened up around 1886-87 when the Northern Pacific railroad sliced through the wilderness. Numerous mining operations were launched in the area and Cumberland was named in 1893 after the Cumberland Valley, a coal-rich part of Pennsylvania.

One of the ambitious undertakings was the Navy Mine. Like other such operations, it met its demise when gas and oil replaced coal. As part of the mining process, workers would pile unwanted product into a pile. Mounds of so-called tailings are still found throughout the area.

One of those piles has sat since 1923 above the homes (and a couple of businesses) that make up the current Cumberland community, near the one-time entrance to the Navy Mine. It’s on private land that is administered by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

The mound of tailings is not insignificant, totaling approximately 10,000 cubic yards.

THE DAY EVERYTHING CHANGED

It was Friday, June 5, when a smoldering fire was first reported (though DNR estimates the incident started earlier).

Crews from the Enumclaw Fire Department were on the scene early, as Cumberland sits within the EFD district boundaries. The department subsequently received multiple calls from concerned citizens, all dealing with smoke coming from nearby woods.

Fire Chief Randy Fehr quickly noted that such an incident went beyond his department’s expertise. A news report on the EFD website noted, “This is a complex and lengthy fire incident with no simple or quick solution.”

DNR was soon brought into the mix, Fehr said, and a fire line was built around the site to prevent anything from spreading into the adjacent brush and timber. DNR crews attempted to mitigate the situation with a foam application, Fehr said, but that plan was abandoned after four weeks of unsuccessful effort.

OTHER AGENCIES INVOLVED

By last week, the list of agencies lending expertise had grown beyond Enumclaw Fire and DNR to include the Washington National Guard, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington Department of Ecology and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Early in the process, the 10th Civil Support Team from Joint Base Lewis-McChord responded to handle air-monitoring efforts. Stations were established in four locations around Cumberland to check the air for toxins.

Nick Cronquist, a public information officer with DNR, said the risk to the public remains “very low” – despite the smell.

STEPS BEING TAKEN

Cronquist said the chain of command begins with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which is overseeing the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, in turn, has brought a subcontractor on board that will perform the mitigation work.

Cronquist explained heavy equipment will be used to take bites from the pile of tailings and spread them on the ground. Foam will be applied and native soil will be added to the mix, he said. When everything is cool and risk-free, the tailing will be moved.

Workers received a jolt during the first day on the job, Cronquist said, when a scoop of tailing was removed from the pile. When air hit the hotter, interior of the mound, flames erupted.

Fehr said the pile of tailings has an exterior temperature of about 500 degrees.

A DNR website lists the incident as “human caused.” Cronquist said an exact source cannot be identified, but the pile sat without incident for nearly a century. It has been speculated that nearby homeless camps could have played a role.

While timelines appear uncertain, it is expected work at the Cumberland site will take from 45 to 60 days.


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