Monday, March 9, 2015

Pennsylvania anthracite culm heaps: A burning issue

In the month(!) since my last blog post, I have been busy doing other writing: finishing up the first draft of a conference paper and writing an article on “Titanic Coal” for The Society for Organic Petrology (TSOP) spring newsletter. The latter will be posted on this blog on April 15, the anniversary of the sinking. In researching what was known about sources/amount of coal on the Titanic, I found that there is strong evidence from crew survivors that a fire smoldered in piled coal in one of the fuel bunkers. Apparently coal fires were not uncommon onboard steamships or in coal waste heaps. Here in eastern Pennsylvania, coal waste dumps are called culm heaps or culm banks.  

The first time I heard the word “culm” was way back in the summer of 1961. My family had just moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, about 75 miles north of New York City. My father had a new job with Daystrom-Weston there. However, in the middle of the summer, the company division my father worked for was moved to Archbald, Pennsylvania (PA), between Scranton and Carbondale in the Northern Anthracite coalfield. So, one weekend, we (mother, father, four children ages 3-10) drove three hours west to the Scranton area to check it out. Saturday was rainy and dreary, but Sunday was clear with a better view of the countryside. Memorable were large, taller-than-houses black steaming piles, alongside or easily seen from the road. I asked my father what they were; he told me culm heaps, waste from the coal mines.

"Burning culm dump, Scranton, Pennsylvania, United States. Culms are huge dumps of coal mine waste some of which burn incessantly." Postcard, 1908.,_Scranton,_PA.jpg

Although fire in piled coal can start spontaneously, The Scranton Times-Tribune recently reported in January 2015, that the PA Department of Environmental Protection says most culm fires these days start from people burning trash near the heaps ( The article states that there are at least 80 coal fires, either in culm dumps or underground mines, in Pennsylvania. Culm fires are a source of greenhouse gases in general, plus give off carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and various toxic trace elements (, and may pose not just an environmental danger to nearby residents but also the danger of setting adjacent coal seams on fire.  Those articles plus describe various methods to extinguish culm fires and emphasize that it is both difficult and expensive to put out such fires for good.

Fell Township, PA, coal waste dump fire, February 2014, The Scranton Times-Tribune.
Pennsylvania culm heaps are a mixture of waste shale and mixed coal-shale fragments; John Oelbracht, plant manager at Westwood Generating, described it as "'rock with some coal stuck to it'" ( Westwood Generating is one of 14 waste coal power plants in Pennsylvania that use culm as fuel in an effort to clean up the anthracite region dumps. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article points out that waste coal power plants, employing a fluidized bed system specifically built to burn culm, may not meet new US Environmental Protection Agency Clean Power Plan carbon-dioxide emission standards, but could apply for a legal exemption on the grounds that CO2 produced by burning culm would not be more than emissions from smoldering culm if left in place. In addition, using culm then removes an environmental chemical hazard from the landscape.

So. . . did we move to Scranton? No. My parents decided (or maybe my mother made the final decision) to move back to our old neighborhood in New Jersey, and my father commuted weekly by car to Scranton. Six months later in February 1962, he got a new job in Chicago, and commuted weekly by plane until the school year ended and we all moved out to join him (only once in several relocations did my parents move us in the middle of the school year). Did all this moving bother me? No. While I do not have a "hometown", I have experienced living in several communities and states, and had a variety of opportunities that I might have missed if I stayed in one place.

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