Crews begin work on coal refuse fire in Chesterfield

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The fight to quench a coal refuse fire in Chesterfield County started on Friday afternoon.

The Virginia Department of Energy hired contracting company, AJS Excavation, to do the work. Crews began removing trees and other debris out of the way to start extinguishing the fire.

The fire was first reported on March 8, and around the same time several residents made calls to Chesterfield Emergency Communications about a strange smell in the Winterpock area.

On March 9, authorities determined that the smell was due to a smoldering coal refuse pile, or material leftover from coal mining, in the historic Beaver Slope Mine.

This specific coal refuse pile is a result of the Bright Hope Coal Company operating in the area in 1877. Due to limited technology at the time to separate coal from rock, the spoil — or waste material — from mining was left behind.

“It looks to be an accidental human cause,” Tarah Kesterson, Manager of Communications with the Virginia Department of Energy, said. “Sometimes these piles can start a fire on their own, but it looks like it was an outside source that caused the fire.”

On Friday, March 10, the Virginia Department of Energy reported that the pile is 100 by 30 feet and the fire is contained to a few spots within the pile.

The Virginia Department of Energy’s Abandoned Mine Land (AML) team has now declared the fire an AML emergency. This allowed them to access funds and get contractors out there quicker.

It costs about $63,000 to remediate the problem, according to Kesterson.

Even though the fire was reported last week, crews waited until Friday, March 17 to start putting the fire out because they needed to find the right specialists.

“This refuse pile hasn’t been a problem,” Kesterson said. “It’s been there for over a hundred years until it caught fire.”

Workers are expected to do this in phases. They’ll tear down the pile, separate it, and spray it with water from a nearby creek.

“They’ll wet all the material down and then they’ll smother the material with good soil. Basically, taking away oxygen that it needs to burn,” Captain Joe Harvey, with Chesterfield Fire and EMS said.

Chesterfield Fire crews are helping out by making sure the fire doesn’t get out of hand.

“In my 29 years with Chesterfield Fire and EMS, this is a first for me,” Harvey said. “Chesterfield has a rich history with coal in the area, but as far as a fire related to that– this is the first time that I know of anything occurring in Chesterfield County.”

He said a small brush fire spread out from the pile Thursday, but fire crews have since contained it.

“That’s another reason why we have units committed to this today just in case something happens as they’re tearing the pile apart,” Harvey added.

The smoke and smell of the fire has reached people living in the Winterpock community. Some residents say they’re concerned for their health.

Kesterson said crews are always monitoring the air quality and it hasn’t reached toxic levels at this time.

“The smell is a nuisance. We know that, and there’s just nothing we can do about it at this point,” she said. “Our crews that are working today, they have continuous carbon dioxide monitors on their equipment. We also have a hazardous gas monitor on site.”

The public is still urged to stay out of the area during this process. Chesterfield County fire officials and Virginia Energy AML staff will be informing crew and anyone living nearby if they rise to unsafe levels.

The Virginia Department of Energy said crews should have the fire out within the next three to six days.

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