Coal Fires

Coal Fires

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Coal Fires

I’ve long been familiar with the concept of coal mines, but a common occurrence I was unfamiliar with previous to this class was the concept of coal mine fires, but it is a huge problem, both economically and environmentally.

Perhaps the most infamous American example of a coal mine fire is Centralia, a town in the anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania. Centralia was like any other coal town until one fateful day in 1962, when a heap of burning trash in a dump that doubled as a mine stripping pit quickly spread to other parts of the mine. After a few months of bureaucratic haggling, the local government finally agreed to drill to suffocate the fire, but it had spread faster than had been anticipated and could not easily be contained. In the next few years, subsequent efforts to quell the fire proved futile while it expanded beyond the confines of the coal mine to other areas underneath people’s residences in the town of Centralia.

Because the ground, at places, was literally breathing carbon monoxide into people’s homes, within a few years Centralia became a place unliveable for its residents and, in 1981, the government bought the town out, paying to ship Centralia’s population elsewhere, away from the barren, sinking land and its still-raging fires that had been incited almost 20 years previous. A few remained behind despite the government-paid relocation and they still remain today, but the fire below them still remains also, raging unabated beneath what was once a booming town. (Tietz)

The problem of Coal fires is not limited to Centralia, Pennsylvania, however. It is a problem that has caused major difficulties both in other areas of the United States (like Colorado) and also other parts of the world. In Indonesia, for instance, a series of forest fires in 1982 ignited a series of coal fires, 106 of which the government was able to extinguish, leaving 159 that are still raging to this very day. (Amos) A coal fire in Jharia, India, that had already caused the government to relocate the town’s population, destroyed a riverbank, unleashing a rush of water in the underground mines that drowned 78 coal workers. By some estimates, fires that rage in the northern coal belt of China burn something like 200 million tons of coal each year. (Krajick)

While the economic cost of this is considerable — over $1 billion spent in the United States alone, despite the fact that the relatively few coal fires it plays host to are still extant — the environmental cost is perhaps even more alarming.

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“The fires in China produce nearly as much carbon dioxide, the main gas linked to global warming, as is emitted each year by all the cars and small trucks in the United States.” (Revkin)

Extinguishing coal fires has proved extremely difficult. Some small fires have been extinguished by drilling holes and pumping in inert gases or foams. Others have been flooded by redirecting streams over the burning coal. Some fires have been controlled by excavating deep trenches that cut off the fires the same way a fire break in a woodland can stop a forest fire from spreading. (Revkin)

Alfred Whitehouse, a geologist with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining has said that the best method of stopping coal fires is “total excavation,”; i.e. using bulldozers and other heavy equipment to dig the fires out and extinguish them. This method was used to put out 60 fires in Gilette, Wisconsin last year, after the fires were mapped out by a helicopter flying overhead. (Krajick)

But although this method might have been useful for a relatively smaller forest fire the problems posed by Centralia and Jharia still plague geologists, politicians, and the general population. And any methods that have proved effective at quelling fires have also proved too costly for many economies to budget. Whether or not the world’s budget can handle the onslaught of carbon dioxide remains to be seen.

Works Cited:

Amos, Jonathan. “Coal fires are global ‘catastrophe’” BBC News Online. Feb. 14, 2003.

Krajick, Kevin. “Fire in the Hole” Smithsonian Magazine. May 2005.

Revkin, Andrew C. “Sunken Fires Menace Land and Climate” New York Times: New York, NY. Jan 15, 2002

Tietz, Jeff. “The Great Centralia Coal Fire.” Harper’s Magazine. New York: Feb. 2004, p.47
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