DENVER - Nine men trapped in Pennsylvania's Quecreek Mine dramatized the danger of mine flooding last year, but a more common coal mine disaster is getting little attention, scientists said here yesterday.
It's the fire below.
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 above as scared as a battlefield.
“A global environmental catastrophe,” is how geologist Glenn B. Stracher described the situation.
Mr. Stracher of East Georgia College organized an international symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“This symposium is dedicated to disclosing the severity of the coal fires problem,” Mr. Stracher said, noting that some of the fires have been burning for centuries with few people aware of the problem.
Fighters have battled one fire in New Straitsville, Ohio, near Columbus, since 1884, and still aren't sure if it has been put out, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Concern and action are needed, Mr. Stracher said, because of the environmental impact - especially of mega-fires burning in India, China, and elsewhere in Asia.
One coal fire in northern China, for instance, is burning over an area more than 3,000 miles wide and almost 450 miles long.
"The direct and indirect economic losses from coal fires are huge," said Paul M. van Dijk, a Dutch scientist who is tracking the Chinese blazes via satellite.
He estimated that the Chinese fires alone consume 120 million tons of coal annually. That's almost as much as the total annual coal production in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois combined.
The Chinese fires make a big, hidden contribution to global warming through the greenhouse effect, scientists said.
Each year the Chinese fires release about 360 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as much as all the cars and light trucks in the United States. Carbon dioxide is the main "greenhouse gas," which warms the atmosphere.
In addition, coal-mine fires release toxic air pollutants that damage human health and cause water pollution.
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 can stretch from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka.
Underground coal fires start in different ways. Natural events like lightning and spontaneous combustion can ignite seams of coal at the surface, with the fire spreading underground. Ancient coal ash found in a 1,600-square-mile area of Wyoming and Montana suggests that huge fires raged in prehistoric times.
"Tens of billions of tons of coal have burned, releasing gases to the atmosphere, over the past 3 million years," said Donald A. Coates, a U.S. Geological Service scientist.
Improper sealing of abandoned mines and accidents also are factors.
Mine fires are frustratingly difficult and costly to extinguish, panelists said.
Weapons range from backfilling mine shafts to cut off the oxygen supply to a new foam-like grout that's squirted into mine shafts like shaving cream, then expands to snuff out the fire.
Most are simply left to burn until they exhaust their fuel.