DEQ and partners work to ensure safety for the residents of Reliance

Reliance Coal Mining District’s historic tipple

By Kristine Galloway

RELIANCE – The Town of Reliance is safer today than it has been in decades.

Miles of abandoned underground coal mines made collapse a significant concern. A large underground coal mine fire created an additional hazard to the community.

But that is no longer the case thanks to teamwork between the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Abandoned Mine Land Division (AML), BRS Engineering in Riverton and multiple experienced contractors.

Harold Hutson, senior engineer for BRS Engineering, said, “Now there is no one in Reliance who is going to go to bed at night with the risk that their house is going to fall into the mine.”

Willie Gunther, a Reliance resident, said, “My house was actually splitting apart on both sides because the ground was sinking out from under us.”

He is part of the reclamation work as well, driving a cement truck filled with grout to fill voids.

“I’m really happy this has been done, and I know tons of other neighbors are happy about it too,” Gunther added.

Dolores Moreno is one of those neighbors. She said her nieces used to play in the mine shafts, and it’s a great comfort to her to know they won’t be able to do that anymore.

A report developed by BRS Engineering explains that the historic Reliance Coal Mining District in Sweetwater County included many underground coal mines that were involved in the construction of the Union Pacific transcontinental railroad and thereby contributed to the development of the western U.S.

The abandoned mine reclamation work in Reliance originally began in 2007. It included excavating and filling various near-surface mine features and shallow mine subsidence areas. Hutson explained that subsidence is the collapse of the ground surface into underground mine voids.

Based on that and nearby work, AML asked BRS Engineering to further map out locations in the state where underground mines existed beneath infrastructure such as buildings and roads.

BRS Engineering’s report explains that the mapping and subsequent exploratory drilling proved the existence of mine voids, including one located dangerously close to the surface under a frequently used county road. That same void contained a potentially dangerous mine fire that had been burning since around 1926.

Hutson said, “The mine fire was right under the county road where the school bus traversed daily to pick up kids whose homes were near the historic mine portals.”

Exploratory drilling also determined there were extensive underground mine voids with little support under much of Reliance, creating a high risk of subsidence throughout the town. Reclamation to fill those voids and stabilize the town began in 2015. Hutson said he expects the work to be completed in November.

Many residents of Reliance didn’t realize there was a problem under their town and homes.

“When they see those large quantities of grout material being pumped underground to stabilize the ground under their houses, they’re amazed and thankful for the work we’re doing,” Hutson said.

According to the report, in one case, more than 2,000 cubic yards of grout was needed to fill mine voids under a single-family home in Reliance.

Ryan Reed, project manager for BRS Engineering, said the void was larger than the resident’s home. He added that filling the void under another resident’s home required about 100 mixer trucks of grout.

Julie Roper, owner of that home, said, “You don’t realize that you’ve got all that under you.”

Roper said she was aware of the voids because she grew up in Reliance, but she didn’t quite realize the extent or the danger of some of it, including the mine fire. She said she now believes the mine voids are the reason her trees sometimes wouldn’t take root.

Ultimately, the contractor filled more than 21 acres of underground mine voids with 91,000 cubic yards of grout, according to the BRS Engineering report.

Some of that grout aided in extinguishing a 2.5-acre portion of the large underground mine fire.

The contractor suppressed the fire by methodically filling the void with carefully placed grout. Confirmation drilling in the area later proved the fire had been fully extinguished. High temperatures and hazardous gas emissions required the drilling crew to use self-breathing devices while working on the fire.

According to the report, “The proven effectiveness of this method may be directly transferrable to coal mine fires in other districts.”

Underground coal mine fires are common across the U.S., including Wyoming, and often can only be monitored to ensure they don’t spread or create further damage.

The reclamation work to mitigate the safety hazards in Reliance ultimately cost $20.9 million, according to the BRS Engineering report.

All property owners in Reliance consented to having work done on their land, and the work cost the property owners nothing. The work was all paid for through federal AML funding.

Don Newton, DEQ’s AML Division administrator, said managing subsidence like this project comprises the largest part of the AML Division’s grant funding.

“The importance of that work is primarily to protect human safety and infrastructure, such as housing and businesses. Structures built over mines are at risk from subsidence,” he said.

The Union Pacific Coal Company began mining in the Reliance Coal Mining District in 1910 and stopped in 1954 before Congress passed a law requiring mining companies to reclaim their own mines instead of abandoning them when they stop mining.

Hutson said Reliance is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The town still has the old miners’ residences and bathhouse, as well as the mine tipple. A tipple is a structure used to load coal for transport.

Reed said it’s the only surviving Union Pacific tipple left in Wyoming. He added that the old schoolhouse also still exists, though it’s been repurposed into an apartment complex.

BRS Engineering nominated the reclamation project in Reliance for the annual reclamation awards presented by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Hutson said they did that because the project included multiple types of reclamation, supported human health and infrastructure, extinguished a mine fire and positively affected many lives.

Newton said, “BRS and the contractors that did the work did a fantastic job. They are very competent and safe in their work.”

He added that the project also provided an economic boom to the region by creating jobs to do the work. The AML Division created more than 700 jobs in the state in 2020.

Previous DEQ Director names new Solid and Hazardous Waste Administrator