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Underground Coal Fires

Over at Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating writes about a little-known natural disaster—underground coal fires in northern China:

China's recent industrial growth depends heavily on coal -- the source of 70 percent of the country's energy—a major reason why it recently became the world's largest carbon emitter. The country's mining sector is also extremely dangerous, killing as many as 13 miners every day. But nowhere is the danger of China's out-of-control coal addiction more evident than in the 62 raging underground coal fires that have burned in Inner Mongolia since the early 1960s.

Covering an area more than 3,000 miles long, China's northern coal fires are estimated to destroy as many as 20 million tons of coal per year, more than the entire annual production of Germany. According to some estimates, these fires could be the cause of up to 2 to 3 percent of the world's carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. A new initiative by the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region aims to put half the fires out by 2012.

Back in 2005, Kevin Krajick reported for Smithsonian that this was also a huge problem in India:

China has the most coal fires, but India, where largescale mining began more than a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of them. Rising surface temperatures, and toxic byproducts in groundwater and soil, have turned the densely populated Raniganj, Singareni and Jharia coal fields into vast wastelands. Subsidence has forced relocations of villages and roads—then re-relocations, as fire fronts advance. Rail lines give way; buildings disappear. In 1995, a Jharia riverbank was undermined by fire and crumbled; water rushed into underground mines, killing 78.

Perhaps the most terrifying spectacle is the unquenched fire itself: many blazes smoldered quietly in old underground tunnels until recently, when modern strip pits exposed them to air. The revitalized flames erupted, engulfing the region in a haze of soot, carbon monoxide and compounds of sulfur and nitrogen. Burning coal also releases arsenic, fluorine and selenium. (Studies in China have suggested that the millions of people who use coal for cooking are being slowly poisoned by such elements.) Even so, workers continue to labor in this highly toxic environment.

On a lesser scale, the United States has a few underground coal fires scattered here and there. In Centralia, Pennsylvania, an underground mine fire has been burning since 1962. At its peak, the town had about 2,000 residents. But people started fleeing from the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide rising out of the ground, and today there are fewer than 20 people there—and the Post Office has revoked the town's zip code. (According to Wikipedia, you can still see steam and smoke coming out of an abandoned portion of PA Route 61.)

Or take New Straitsville, Ohio, where the population has dwindled to 774: "Coal mining activity ended in 1884, when a labor dispute at the mine ended with a group of miners sending a burning coal car into the mine, igniting the coal. At one time the heat from the fire was so great that residents could draw hot water directly from wells to brew coffee. The fire in the New Straitsville mine burns to this day."

(Flickr photo credit: sim)