The greatest environmental dangers from coal fires lie outside of the United States. China and India are but two countries trying to catch up with America's level of industrialization and thus power consumption. China, for instance, derives 75 percent of its energy supplies from coal, mining almost two billion tons of coal annually, which is more than one ton per Chinese citizen. The country possesses one of the richest anthracite deposits in the world — about 3000 miles long and up to 125 feet deep at some points. Correspondingly, they have more and larger coal fires than any other country, according to Stefan Voigt, co-chair of the Sino-German Coal Fire Initiative, which maps the fires from space. China's underground coal fires are due to unprecedented energy demands, slipshod mining practices, regulatory irresponsibility, environmental neglect, and a pervasive attitude that unseen problems are not really problems. As is typical, government exacerbates the problem, with the usual bureaucratic lethargy and denial. The Chinese officially acknowledge 56 active coal fires, and yet thousands have been mapped using satellite and aircraft imagery. Stefan Voigt, a geographer at the German Aerospace Center near Munich, notes that, "We know there are thousands, but it is too hard to count."
So what are they doing about it? Since 1993, Chinese scientists have been working with Dutch and German researchers to map China's coal fires. But finding them is not enough; they must be extinguished. Generations of geologists and engineers have grappled with the issue, and have concluded that, in most cases, the only solution is complete excavation and smothering the fire with soil. But China and India lack the needed earth moving equipment, relying almost entirely on picks and shovels. Geologist Paul van Dijk, of the International Institute for Geo-information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) in the Netherlands, estimates that less than 10 percent of China's fires are being fought.
Matters are no better in India, which has the world's highest concentration of large coal mines, and increasing numbers of coal fires. The densely populated areas of Raniganj, Singareni, and Jharia have been reduced to huge wastelands, as a result of increasing surface temperatures, as well as ground water and soil contamination with toxic byproducts. As a result of advancing fires, buildings and rail lines are destroyed, and villages and the roads connecting them must be relocated repeatedly. A riverbank in Jharia collapsed in 1995, flooding water into underground mines, killing 78 people.
Rapidly catching up with India, Indonesia has logged and cleared for agriculture vast tracts of rain forest, which covered near-surface coal. Their preferred method of clearance: fire. This irresponsible practice has started an estimated 3,000 coal fires since 1982, and destroyed countless buildings. The resultant heavy smoke affects Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia — blocking out sunlight, causing crop failure, and reducing visibility, leading to at least one oil-tanker collision. The smoke creates a choking haze of soot and carbon monoxide, as well as sulfur and nitrogen compounds, and is the primary suspect for the current Asian asthma epidemic. The coal fires also release arsenic, fluorine, and selenium, which studies indicate are slowly poisoning millions of people in China alone.
This is a massive ecological problem that will only get worse, because these fires will burn for hundreds if not thousands of years, pouring out tons of sulfur and other poisonous gases every year, contributing to global warming, cooking to death layers of earth, and igniting forest fires. For instance, not far from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, an old coal mine has burned for a hundred years. In the summer of 2002, it started a forest fire that wiped out 12,000 acres and 43 buildings. It cost $6.5 million to put out the fire… the forest fire, that is. The coal fire still burns.
On the other side of the planet, in Inner Mongolia, the Wuda coal field is one of China's largest fields, at almost 15 square miles. Sadly, it is burning, making it China's most destructive coal fire and one of the world's worst environmental disasters. China's underground fires burn 20 million to 30 million tons of coal annually, pumping tons of ash into the air. Each ton of ash results in almost a ton equivalent of carbon dioxide, and a third of a ton of methane (methane produces 21 times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions compared to carbon dioxide).
These coal fires pose an ecological and energy challenge that must be squarely addressed and resolved regardless of the obstacles. Moreover, with increasing coal mining around the globe, the situation will only get worse. The world's citizens must voice their concerns to those in positions of power to make far greater strides in the right direction. We can do our best to educate and help spread the word, because the fires are spreading just as fast, and this is a race we need to win.
(Sources: "Fire in the Hole", Kevin Krajick, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005. "Flaming Dragon", Mike Meyer, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005, page 58.)