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LEX 18 Investigates: Kentucky's Newest Underground Fire Burning - LEX18.com | Continuous News and StormTracker Weather

LEX 18 Investigates: Kentucky's Newest Underground Fire Burning In Berea

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Berea Fire Berea Fire
Berea residents say not enough is being done to combat an underground oil shale fire which has blanketed the area with the thick smell of sulfur.

The fire has been burning for two months, and no one seems to know how to stop it or how bad the problem could become.

LEX 18 Investigates has learned underground fires are not uncommon in Kentucky, but most occur in abandoned coal mines far from homes and towns. The Berea fire is venting out of a hillside beside a CSX railroad track, on CSX property, about a mile from Berea College's campus.

“There is a lot of sulfur and sulfur dioxide that is coming off of this fire and it blowing right into our neighborhoods,” said Jason Strange, a Berea professor.

Fire officials say the shale fire was sparked by a brush fire in November. The Berea fire department thought the fire had been put out once, but it reignited. Today, the fire is 75-yards long and could be burning deeper into the hillside.


“We are hoping it hadn't extended back in the hill that it is just burning in the loose,” said Berea Fire Chief Roy Curtis said.

Curtis said Berea firefighters were helping CSX. The fire is on the railroad's property.


LEX 18 Investigative Reporter Richard Essex contacted CSX to ask why the fire had been allowed to burn for two months. A spokeswoman replied simply that CSX officials were helping “ensure the fire is controlled and the impact to the community is limited.”

However, a mile away, the impact of the smell alone is contributing to some residents packing up and leaving.

“At the end of the month, I'm actually moving south of town,” said Jennifer Marciniak.

Others are concerned about what contaminants they might be breathing in, and the lack of notification about the fire from city and railroad officials.

“For weeks now, residents have been breathing in this stuff,” Strange said.


Jim Hower, a University of Kentucky researcher who studies Kentucky's underground fires, said the smoke can produce carcinogens. However, he said it likely doesn't present a health risk as long as people stay away from the plumes.


“In the course of being outside, walking by these fires, you want some protections, but they're also probably not in the concentration, or the length of exposure and intensity of exposure that are going to cause an immediate danger to somebody,” he said. “They smell bad, and it's certainly something you don't want to be living with.”

In July, LEX 18 reported on a coal fire burning underneath a road at the Floyd-Knott County line. According to data dug up by LEX 18 Investigates, it's one of many.

A U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement database says there are at least 39 underground mine fires in Perry, Martin, Pike, Knott, Letcher, Floyd and Whitley Counties.

Such fires can burn for years, or decades. In the most infamous case in the United States, an underground coal fire caused the evacuation of an entire Pennsylvania town. That fire ignited in 1962 and is still burning.

Officials say they don't know how big the shale seam is that's on fire in Berea, or how long it could burn. It is currently the only known shale fire in Kentucky, though shale, which is rich with petroleum and has gained international attention due to a controversial harvesting process called “fracking,” has been known to ignite in other parts of the world.

LEX 18 Investigates will continue following efforts to put out the fire.

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