A fix for the Flaming Fountain near the South Dakota Capitol in Pierre could be more urgent, complicated and expensive than anticipated, and it could require an alternative water source for Capitol Lake, according to an expert report.
"We recommend that the State Engineer consider options to reconstruct an alternative memorial fountain in a different configuration that will be more sustainable and safer," said the report from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.
Although the fountain is surrounded by modern war memorials, the fountain itself is a relic. It’s a 110-year-old uncapped, free-flowing well that produces both water and natural gas from about 1,300 feet underground.
For many years, the gas flowed reliably enough to keep a flame lit, so that the water itself seemed to be ablaze.
But it’s been more than a decade since the fountain consistently held a flame, and some observers say the stone structures around the fountain appear to be settling.
At the invitation of State Engineer Stacy Langdeau, who is a Mines graduate, a team from Mines studied the Flaming Fountain during the summer and sent a report to Langdeau last month.
The report said the underground pocket of natural gas that formerly fueled the fountain’s flame is probably almost depleted, which is why the flame won’t stay lit. The report also said the well’s steel casing might be corroded, and water could be leaking through the casing into soft and crumbly underground formations, where the water could be forming cavities that might settle or collapse.
If the well’s casing becomes so corroded that its borehole collapses, water might continue flowing underground and surfacing wherever it finds a pathway.
“Trying to find and shut off the source of this water can be impossible, or at best, extremely expensive,” the report says. “Therefore, it is critical that securing the Flaming Fountain be done as soon as possible while the borehole is still intact.”
The report recommends plugging the well and obtaining new sources of water and natural gas for the fountain. The gas should be obtained from an existing commercial natural-gas supply line near the fountain, the report said.
Water could be obtained by drilling a new well or running a pipeline from the Missouri River, the report suggested. The new water source would also have to feed Capitol Lake, which is currently fed by the same well as the fountain.
The report did not estimate a cost for the work. A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Administration, which is the caretaker for the Capitol complex, said the bureau is looking over the report and trying to determine the best course of action.
Last winter, the Legislature and Gov. Kristi Noem approved a bill authorizing $200,000 in private fundraising for a study of the fountain. But the Mines team did its study free of charge.
State Rep. Tim Rounds, R-Pierre, said this week that the fundraising effort will go ahead, although it’s still in its infancy. He has secured a place for the funds with a foundation operated by BankWest, he said, and is assembling a committee of five people to raise the money. He said the funds could be applied to whatever next steps are deemed necessary by the state engineer and the governor’s office.
Rounds said he is aware of the Mines report and said it foreshadows a potentially costly project.
"There will be a lot more expense than what people thought," he said.
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Memorials to military veterans who served in Korea, Vietnam and World War II stand near the fountain, and Rounds said he would like to avoid disturbing those structures.
The fountain dates to 1909-1910. That winter, while construction of the Capitol was wrapping up, the well was drilled by Norbeck & Nicholson, a company run by then-legislator and eventual governor and U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck. It was predicted that the well would produce both water and natural gas.
One of the authors of the recent Mines report, Dan Soeder, the director of the school’s Energy Resources Initiative, said the gas is a byproduct of animal and plant remains from millions of years ago.
The water comes from an aquifer in a sandstone formation. Soeder said the water originates as precipitation in the Black Hills. It then takes thousands of years to work its way underground and flow all the way to Pierre, where it is under enough pressure that it gushes up the well without any mechanical assistance — a phenomenon known as an “artesian” flow.
“It is remarkable that after 110 years of continuous flow, this well is still vigorously discharging groundwater without the need for a pump,” the Mines report said.
When the well was drilled, its 92-degree water was used to fill man-made Capitol Lake. Today, the lake remains warm during the winter, which is why geese — and their droppings — are a constant presence on and around the lake. The Mines report notes that if Missouri River water is substituted as a source for the lake, the lake will freeze each winter.
“The freezing over of Capitol Lake will also likely drive off some or most of the over-wintering Canada geese,” the report said.
In the well’s early years, natural gas was separated from the water in a gravity tank and was used to light and heat the Capitol, while excess gas was sold to the city of Pierre.
After two people were injured when gas leaks caused a small building on the Capitol grounds to explode in 1958, the gas lines were capped. The fountain then became the main outlet for the natural gas emanating from the well, and there was so much of it that the state’s superintendent of buildings and grounds decided during the 1960s to burn the gas off safely by setting it ablaze.
The water and gas flowed too irregularly to support a consistent flame, so a crew of state workers fashioned a baffle from scrap iron and installed it in the well to regulate the flow, thus producing a supposedly eternal solution.
“Eternity” expired as early as 2008, when reports surfaced that the flame was flickering out repeatedly and had to be periodically re-lit.
In recent years, an inspection device was run down the borehole, where it encountered an unknown obstruction at 500 feet. The Mines report says the obstruction is probably the baffle that was installed during the 1960s, which may have fallen down the well.
The Mines report said a contractor should be hired to first remove the obstruction and install a deep plug in the well, so that a video inspection may be conducted to determine the condition of the casing and the subsurface around it. The well should then be permanently plugged and filled, the report said.
The recommendations are based on three concerns.
First, the report said, the pocket of underground natural gas that formerly fueled the fountain is nearly depleted, but occasional bubbles of natural gas still arise, which could pose a danger to anyone who tries to light the fountain. That conclusion is based on data from a methane-gas sensor that the Mines team installed at the fountain and remotely monitored for three months.
Second, a “rotten egg” smell emitted by the fountain could be hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic, the report said.
The final and “most critical” concern, the report said, is the likelihood of corrosion afflicting the steel casing of the well, due to the casing’s age and the presence of corrosive substances in the water.