Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Coal Fires- A Major Pollution Source

Coal Fires- A Major Pollution Source

Jack W. Dini
Livermore, CA

“Scrapping all the cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks in America could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2%. Extinguishing the fires that burn unchecked at coal deposits around the world could reduce emissions by 2-3% without the economic devastation.”(1)

Are you doing your best to minimize your carbon footprint? If so, that’s commendable. However, it’s not going to make a hoot of a difference in the big picture. For example, here are three facts about the impossibility, or futility, of controlling emissions:

1-Uncontrolled fires in China’s abandoned coal mines release as much carbon dioxide as the entire country of Japan does from useful fuel consumption. (2)

2- The third world is growing. China has 30,000 coal mines and is opening a new power station every five days until 2012. India is right behind in present and future energy consumption; it’s annual demand for coal has been steadily increasing over the past decade, and is now nearly 50% greater than it was a decade ago.(3)

3- People with empty bellies don’t have the luxury of a Western middle-class moralist to worry what may or may not happen 50 to 100 years down the track. If their economic salvation, as in China, is a factory belching goo into the atmosphere, they’re happy to live with that to put bread on the table. (4)

Whatever the West does to ‘save the planet’ is mere gesture unless the rest of the world agrees to give up its right to grow as we’ve grown. The Al Gore machine seeks to limit each person to 1 ton of carbon per year. The proposal is to create a system of carbon allowances that will be rationing cards of the future. (2) This is an admirable goal for folks in developed countries, but what is left unstated is that the remaining four fifths of the world’s population (almost 5 billion people) are doing their best to feed themselves and emulate our present lifestyle and aren’t about to stop.

Coal Mine Fires

Let’s look at coal mine fires, which are underground smoldering of coal mines. Mine fires can burn for very long periods of time (months or years), until the seam in which they smolder is exhausted. They propagate in a creeping fashion along mine shafts and cracks. Because they are underground, they are extremely difficult and costly to reach and put out.

Michael Woods reports, “Underground coal fires are relentlessly incinerating millions of tons of coal around the world. The blazes spew out huge amounts of air pollutants, force residents to flee their homes, send toxic runoff flowing into waterways, and leave the land as scarred as a battlefield.” (5)

Around the world, thousands of inextinguishable mine fires are burning, especially in China and India. “A global environmental catastrophe,’ is how geologist Glenn Stracher, of East Georgia College in Swainsboro, describes these fires. Stracher co-organized an international symposium on the topic at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2003. The AAAS estimates that mine coal fires, started mainly by human activity, contribute significantly to carbon dioxide emissions—as much as 3% of the world output deriving from such fires in China alone. (6)

One of the worst underground fires in the United States, the Centralia, Pennsylvania mine fire, has been burning since May 1962. The fire was started when the local city council set trash ablaze in an abandoned strip mine that had been used as an illegal dump. The fire burned along a coal seam into tunnels located beneath Centralia, sending smoke and toxic fumes into the air. Kevin Krajick reported in 2005, “A hellish landscape is about all that remains of the once-thriving town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Forty-three years ago, a vast honeycomb of coal mines at the edge of the town caught fire. An underground inferno has been spreading ever since, burning at depths of up to 300 feet, baking surface layers, venting poisonous gases and opening holes large enough to swallow people or cars. The conflagration may burn for another 250 years along an eight mile stretch encompassing 3,700 acres, before it runs out of the coal that fuels it.” (7)

The fire was brought to national and international attention in 1981 after a 12 year old boy fell into an open steaming hole. By that time Centralia had been irreversibly damaged by the fire: in 1980 poisonous gases had begun to infiltrate a local elementary school and several homes in Centralia and whole sections of streets and yards were near collapse from the tremendous heat of the fire. In 1983 a group of concerned citizens eventually won relocation for those who wanted to leave. Most of the 1,000 residents of Centralia chose this option. David DeKok describes the trials and tribulations of Centralia residents in his book, Unseen Danger. (8)

Pennsylvania has over 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands and has 1/3 of the nation’s mine problems. There are over 45 mine fires burning across Pennsylvania; five underground fires in Allegheny County, five in Percy County, one in Westmoreland, and others in more isolated areas. (9)

Pennsylvania isn’t alone. The US harbors hundreds of blazes from Alaska to Alabama. Near Glenwood Spring, Colorado, an old coal mine has burned for the past 100 years. In the summer of 2002, the blaze ignited a forest fire that consumed 12,000 acres and 43 buildings. Putting it out cost $6.5 million, and the mine still burns. (6) The underground coal seam that ignited the fire has been burning for about 100 years. It was also responsible for the infamous 1994 Storm King Mountain fire that killed 14 firefighters. (6)

China and India

The fires in the United States pale in comparison to those in China which has an estimated 56 coal conflagrations. (10) One, in northern China, consumes up to 200 million tons of coal each year. For comparison, coal consumption in the United States during 2000 was just about one billion tons. (11)

A team from the Netherlands studying the environmental effects of these fires concluded that they release up to 360 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, equal to two to three percent of global carbon dioxide releases. (6)

Soot from the fires in China, India, and other Asian countries are a source of the ‘Asian Brown Haze.’ It’s a 2 mile thick cloud of soot, acid droplets and other material that sometimes stretches across South Asia from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka. (5)

Kevin Krajick reports, “India, where large scale mining began more than a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of coal mine fires. Rising surface temperatures, and toxic byproducts in groundwater and soil, have turned the densely populated Raniganj, Singareni, and Jharia coal fields into vast wastelands.” (7) The Jharia is an exclusive storehouse of prime coke coal in the country, consisting of 23 large underground and nine large open cast mines. The mining activities in these coal fields started in 1894 and had really intensified in 1925. The history of the coal mine fire in Jharia can be traced back to 1916 when the fire was first detected. At present, more than 70 mine fires are reported in this region. (12)

Fighting the Fires

Michael Woods notes, “Mine fires are frustratingly difficult and costly to extinguish. Weapons range from backfilling mine shafts to cutting off the oxygen supply with a new foam-like grout that’s squirted into mine shafts like shaving cream and then expands to sniff out the fire. Most are simply left alone to burn until they eventually exhaust their fuel supply.” (5)

Regarding the fighting of the Centralia fire, Krajick reports, “Over some 20 years, firefighters tried eight times to put it out. First they dug trenches, but the fire outpaced them. Then they attempted ‘flushing’—a process that involves augering holes into or ahead of a fire, and pouring down wet sand, gravel, slurries of cement and fly ash to cut off oxygen. Next, state and federal geologists drilled hundreds of exploratory boreholes to define the fire, then dug a huge trench across its supposed path. But the fire had already spread beyond the trench. Flooding the area with water was rejected: it is nearly impossible to inundate a large underground area, especially one as complex and well drained as Centralia. A final solution, to dig a pit three-quarters of a mile long deep as a 45 story building would have cost $660 million, more than the value of the property in the town. It too, was rejected.” (7)

These days remote sensing technology makes it possible to detect coal fires and study their effects. Thermal and optical images along with field-based measurements are used to determine the location, size, depth, propagation direction, burning intensity, temperature and coal consumption of a fire. This information has been useful for fighting fires in northern China. (13)

In the case of the Jharia coalfields in India, measures include bull dozing, leveling and covering with soil to prevent the entry of oxygen and to stabilize the land for vegetation. Fire fighting in this area requires relocation of a large population, which poses to be a bigger problem than the actual fire fighting operations. (12)


While the United States is cutting its own emissions, some nations, especially China and India, are belching out more and more dirty air. As a result, overseas pollution could partly cancel out improvements in US air quality that have cost billions of dollars. (14)

In November 2006, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that China will become the world’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in 2009, overtaking the United States nearly a decade earlier than previously anticipated. Coal is expected to be responsible for three-quarters of that carbon dioxide.(15) Also, according to the IEA, by 2030 coal-based power generation is projected to more than triple while providing roughly one-third of global electricity generation. (16) Do you think this will mean less underground, uncontrolled fires? I surely don’t.


1. “Coal Fires,” Civil Defense Perspectives, 23, 2, January 2007

2. Vlado Bevc, “Global warming nothing but a paper tiger,” The Times, Walnut Creek, CA, January 27, 2007, pA23

3. “An Energy Summary of India,” Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, http://www.cslforum.org/india.htm; accessed February 13, 2007

4. Daryl McLure, “Climate Change the Latest Doomsayer Call,” http://ff.org/centers/csspp/library/co2weekly/20070213/20070213_02.html, February 10, 2007

5. Michael Woods, “Underground coal fires called a catastrophe,” post-gazette.com, Pittsburgh, PA, February 15, 2003

6. “A burning issue,” http://www.minesandcommunities.org/Action/press109.htm; accessed February 4, 2007

7. Kevin Krajick, “ Fire in the hole,” Smithsonian, 36, 52, May 2005

8. David DeKok, Unseen Danger, (Philadelphia, PA, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986)

9. Pennsylvania Mine Fire Facts, http://www.fifedrum.org/rhinohug/Otherfires.html; accessed February 15, 2007

10. Mike Meyer, “Flaming Dragon,” Smithsonian, 36, 58, May 2005

11. Glenn B. Stracher, “Coal Fires: A Burning Global Recipe for Catastrophe,” Geotimes, October 2002

12. “The Jharia coal field fire,” http://edugreen.teri.res.in/EXPLORE/n_renew/jharia.htm; accessed February 1, 2007

13. Glenn B. Stracher, Tammy P. Taylor, and Anupma Prakash, “Coal Fires: A Synopsis of Their Origin, Remote Sensing Detection and Thermodynamics of Sublimation,” in Case Histories of Mine Reclamation and Regulation: Environmental Technology for Mining, S., Shannon, Editor, (Vancouver, BC, Robertson GeoConsultants Inc.), 1

14. Traci Watson, “Air pollution form other countries drifts into USA,” USA Today, March 14, 2005, 1

15. Peter Fairley, “China’s Coal Future,” Technology Review, 110, 56, January-February 2007

16. “Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate: Coal Mining Task Force Summary of Action Plant and Projects,” http://www.state.gov/g/oes/rls/fs/2006/75376.htm, October 31, 2006

1 comment:

Mark said...

I was in Honk Kong last month by a business travel ( promoting viagra online ) and the pollution there by the coal fires really frightened me. This problem can expand, and affect enormous quantity of people.