“People were lighting the streets on fire”: 25th anniversary of Coal Bed Methane evacuation

The Bryan Times reports on gas leaks in Rawhide Village, Feb 16, 1988

2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the forced evacuation of a small village in Wyoming, USA following Coal Bed Methane (CBM) operations nearby.

“It’s just kind of strange driving by all those empty houses and knowing what they have been and were worth. We bought the first home out there. We’ve lost it all. Everything we’ve worked for” said Hugh and Marie Polly, ex residents, to a local newspaper a year later.

Early in 1987 villagers of Rawhide Village found hydrogen sulfide and methane seeping from cracks in the ground and bubbling in a stream close to their homes.

The Amax Coal Company had recently been removing water from coal seams nearby (see p 20 of this pdf). This is an integral part of Coal Bed Methane extraction: water holds back underground gas so when water is removed, gas can flow.

In the case of Rawhide, gas flowed into streams and to the surface. Field and laboratory investigations later found the village was underlain by potentially explosive concentrations of methane (see p20 of this pdf).

“It came to our attention that people were lighting the streets on fire,” said Campbell County Commissioner Tom Ostlund. Officials ordered the evacuation of 31 of the neighborhood’s 215 families. By mid March, however, the they had decided all but seven could return.

The village continued to be plagued by wafting gases.

Eventually the authorities capitulated and later that year President Reagan declared the village a disaster zone (see point 5 of this link). It was permanently evacuated in July 1987.

Villagers went on to sue Amax Coal Company, alleging that it had caused the methane and hydrogen sulphide to leak. Amax settled for an undisclosed amount on April 26, 1989 (see footnote 3 of this link).

This historical anecdote shows the dangers of Coal Bed Methane (it’s called Coal Seam Gas in Australia). Once the underground gas is destabilised it is possible for it to migrate along many pathways to the surface.

In the UK, more than sixty sites have permission to drill for CBM, with CBM wells producing gas at Airth in Scotland and Doe Green in Cheshire.

In Australia the threat of CBM has stimulated the creation of the Lock the Gate Alliance a large-scale protest movement of landowners and farmers committed to halting CBM operations in the country.

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