Dormant coal fire under Australian school reignites

An underground coal fire beneath an Australian school that has been dormant for a decade has reignited.

Paula Loustos, a parent at Cringila Public School in Wollongong, NSW, alerted the school and Australian Environment Protection Authority to the issue about three weeks ago, after residents noticed smoke and a burnt, gassy smell emanating from the earth next to the school.

On Monday, she addressed Wollongong Council, calling for assurances about the safety of her children and others.

"This is not a normal smell for Cringila, it smells like the coke ovens from years ago," Loustos told councillors.

"How come we can smell it streets away? Why does nothing grow well there? We need documented evidence to state that our children are, and always have been, safe."

The fenced-off site between the school and its sports fields last drew attention in 2007, when the NSW Education Department - which owns the land - undertook major remediation works to extinguish a fire burning several metres underground.

The fire had been burning for decades unnoticed until 2001. It was caused by coal wash dumped on the site by BHP to create the school's playground in the 1970s. The material was not compacted sufficiently, so the oxygen in the air reacted with the coal wash and spontaneous combustion kicked in.

The day after Loustos raised the issue with the school on September 18, the Education Department launched an investigation with Fire and Rescue NSW, NSW Health and the EPA to find the source of the new smoke.

This revealed that a long spell of dry weather, and subsequent drop in the water table, had resulted in ignition of the underground coal.

Fire crews attended and flooded the area with water in an effort to stop the ground from smouldering.

However, weeks later residents say the smoke has not stopped, and on Tuesday a burning coal smell was still evident next to the fenced off area.

"The safety authorities monitored the site to determine the nature of the smoke emanating from underground and determined that there was no danger to the school community," a spokeswoman from the Education Department, leading the inquiry, said.

"The area in question will continue to remain cordoned off, and measures undertaken to keep the site secure while the department continues to carry out ground and air monitoring."


 - Illawarra Mercury