Gas emissions, minerals, and tars associated with three coal fires, Powder River Basin, USA

Mark A. Engle, Lawrence F. Radke, Edward L. Heffern, Jennifer M.K. O'Keefe, James C. Hower, Charles D. Smeltzer, Judith M. Hower, Ricardo A. Olea, Robert J. Eatwell, Donald R. Blake, Stephen D. Emsbo-Mattingly, Scott A. Stout, Gerald Queen, Kerry L. Aggen, Allan Kolker, Anupma Prakash, Kevin R. Henke, Glenn B. Stracher, Paul A. Schroeder, Yomayra Román-ColónArnout ter Schure

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

99 Scopus citations


Ground-based surveys of three coal fires and airborne surveys of two of the fires were conducted near Sheridan, Wyoming. The fires occur in natural outcrops and in abandoned mines, all containing Paleocene-age subbituminous coals. Diffuse (carbon dioxide (CO2) only) and vent (CO2, carbon monoxide (CO), methane, hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and elemental mercury) emission estimates were made for each of the fires. Additionally, gas samples were collected for volatile organic compound (VOC) analysis and showed a large range in variation between vents. The fires produce locally dangerous levels of CO, CO2, H2S, and benzene, among other gases. At one fire in an abandoned coal mine, trends in gas and tar composition followed a change in topography. Total CO2 fluxes for the fires from airborne, ground-based, and rate of fire advancement estimates ranged from 0.9 to 780mg/s/m2 and are comparable to other coal fires worldwide. Samples of tar and coal-fire minerals collected from the mouth of vents provided insight into the behavior and formation of the coal fires.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)146-159
Number of pages14
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Mar 15 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this research was provided by the Electric Power Research Institute , the U.S. Geological Survey Energy Resources Program , and the U.S. Geological Survey Venture Capital Fund . Jack Smith of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality provided significant input and information on coal fires in the area. Deborah Bergfeld (USGS) and Matthew Varonka (USGS) provided critical evaluation and feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Sue Tewalt and Debbie Carter (both USGS) are acknowledged with finding and providing historical coal chemistry data. Robert Finkelman (University of Texas at Dallas) is acknowledged for his efforts and contributions in bringing together many of the collaborators of this research.


  • Coal fires
  • Emissions
  • Greenhouse gas
  • Mercury
  • Remote sensing
  • Spontaneous combustion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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