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Montana pushing for aid to fight coal-seam fires

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Posted at 8:57 PM, Apr 04, 2024

Some help could be on the way for parts of eastern Montana where coal seam fires have destroyed land, homes, livestock, and livelihoods.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is requesting $10 million from the EPA as part of the Montana Climate Pollution Reduction Priorities to help with the problem.

Burning coal seams are a major cause of wildland fires every year in eastern Montana, where coal veins just below the surface are a natural part of the geology.

“What really sparked my interest is that every summer we burn thousands of acres due to coal seam fires in eastern Montana,” says Cory Chequis, the fire chief for Custer County.

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For the past three years, Cheguis has been on a mission to map coal seams, pinpointing GPS coordinates of hot spots from the air and then hiking into those areas to see if they are coal seam fires.

“We are at 700 coal seams mapped in eastern Montana. That is Big Horn, Custer, Rosebud, and Northern Cheyenne Tribe,” he says.

The fires can burn for years, even decades, underground before flaring up. And it doesn’t take much for them to spark.

“We expect the lightning storms. We expect the human-caused ones, but the coal seams are our wild card,” says Rodney Dresbach, the fire chief in Rosebud County.

Coal seams are one of the main causes of wildland fires in this part of the state, including the Richard Spring fire in 2021 that burned more than 170,000 acres.

“So, it becomes this challenge on, how are we going to keep addressing this? We are starting to see this 365, instead of April through the end of September. It’s becoming that kind of a challenge,” says Dresbach.

The state is requesting $10 million from the EPA for more mapping, as well as specialized equipment, techniques and projects necessary to mitigate and extinguish actively burning coal seams in Montana.

It would come from money set aside by the Biden Administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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“It really adds up quickly as far as the CO2 admissions. It’s not scrubbed. Like the power plants have some kind of abatement system on them. It’s burning raw coal out in the environment," says Mark Bostrom, the administrator for the Conservation and Resource Development Division of the DNRC, which would act as the lead working with counties, state, federal agencies, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe to contract engineering and specialized equipment contractors to extinguish fires.

The $10 million would be spent over a period of five years.

“I think it’s a pretty good measure. I hope the EPA agrees on, awards us a grant,” says Bostrom.

It’s something Cheguis calls a step in the right direction.

“This is something that needs to be done and I think all of us working together—all the counties and the tribes in the state of Montana we could make a positive impact in the state of Montana,” he says.