Coal seam fires - Worldwide forgotten environmental tragedy…

Raging coal seam fires around the world are environmental catastrophes with serious economic and social consequences of international magnitude. Accross the globe, thousands of underground coal fires are burning now - nearly impossible to reach and extinguish once they get started. They occur in many countries mostly in China, India, Russia, the United States, Indonesia, Venezuela, Australia and South Africa, but also at a smaller scale for example in Germany, Romania or the Czech Republic. It is estimated that the toxic emissions of these underground coal fires include 40 tons of mercury going into the atmosphere annually and to be 3% of the world's annual carbon dioxide emissions. Field measurements and laboratory analysis reveal that, depending on the type of geological coal seam, these fires spew carbon monoxide, benzene, toluene, compounds of sulfur and nitrogen and dozens of other toxins along with the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; as well as polluting the soil and damaging the landscape and roads with sinkholes. The elements arsenic, fluorine, mercury, and selenium commonly occur in coal. As coal burns, these elements may volatilise and eventually condense in toxic concentrations on dust particles inhaled by humans and livestock or be adsorbed by food crops and bio-accumulated in fish, birds, and other animals. Pollutants from China’s coalfields, for example, have contributed to acid rain in the Philippines, Japan, and Korea.

fire_road_subsidence_centralia.jpg Image left is a road (among many) where underground smouldering fire causes the road to crack and distort. A coal seam fire is the underground smouldering of a coal deposit, often in a coal mine when coal is exposed or is near the surface due to natural soil erosion. It combines with oxygen and a chemical reaction produces heat and ignites the coal bed. The fires burn downward following a coal seam, fuelled by air vents and through cracks in rock. Low-grade coals spontaneously combust at temperatures as low as 40 °C. Underground fires may smolder for years, or even decades, without showing signs on the surface. Many of the underground fires are natural occurrences (Australia's Burning Mountain is the oldest coal seam fire - has been burning for approximately 6,000 years; currently burning at a rate of one meter a year). However, with the advent of modern (open cast) and deep (underground) coal mining in the beginning of the industrial revolution, new underground coal seam fires have dramatically increased and far too many are out of control and still burning to this day. Mine-related activities responsible for starting coal seam fires include cutting and welding, explosives and electrical work, and smoking which ignite gases such as methane and hydrogen. Coal seam fires, which sometimes exceed temperatures of 540°C (1,000°F), is highly dangerous, cost-prohibitive and nearly impossible to reach and extinguish once they get started and are thus allowed to burn. Several fires in the USA, China and India have been burning since at least the early 1900's. In USA, in 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. The federal and state governments gave up trying to extinguish the fire in the 1980s. “Pennsylvania didn't have enough money in the bank to do the job..." as reported in local papers. A single coal field in Jharia, India, has been smoldering since 1916 (estimated 37 million tons of coal burnt. The Jharia coalfield fire in India is responsible for asthma, chronic bronchitis, and lung and skin cancer in the region).

Underground Coal Mine Fires - Worldwide

World Map of Coal Mine Fires WORLDWIDE coal reserves are vast, over 10 trillion metric tons. The overwhelming number of coal seam fires are found in abandoned coal mines. Each red dot above indicates a nest or series of coalmine or coal deposit fires. These fires represent a significant portion of the overall greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming.



The world's largest coal producer and holds about 13 percent of global coal reserves concentrated mainly in the northern part of the country. The coal mining belt stretches 5000 by 750 km from east to west; coal fires are spread in this entire belt. The map on the left shows the distribution of coal fires in Northern China. Satellite pictures or thermal images have been used to map China's coal fires, which resulted in the discovery of many previously unknown fires - such is the extent of the problem of underground coal fires in China. More than 100 burning areas have been indentified. Research at the International Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (The Netherlands), suggests that between 100 and 200 Mt of high quality coal is consumed by spontaneous combustion every year. The fires are so extensive that they produce about 2-3% of the total world carbon dioxide production associated with fossil fuels and is a hidden contributor to global warming. Each year they release 360 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as much as all the cars and light trucks in the United States. There is evidence that China has taken steps to address its coal fires. In the last twenty years, China has participated to two international consortium with researchers from the Netherlands and Germany focusing on coal fire prevention, detection, and treatment. Regional governments, which previously reported coal fires as spontaneous occurrences, now extol lofty multi-million dollar plans to extinguish them. A government-backed project to quench the 130-year-old fire burning up the Liuhuanggou colliery in Xinjiang began in 2001. After shutting down all mining operations and spending US $16 million over the course of four years, authorities finally proclaimed the fire extinguished and erected a monument to commemorate the efforts of the firefighters. A year later, smoke was spotted issuing from a new fire in the same mining area of Liuhuanggou - illegal mining operations had exposed the coal seam again to more spontaneous combustion!

The Chinese mining industry is one of the few in the world
that actively tries to extinguish coal mine fires on a broad scale.


The state of Pennsylvania has over 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands and has one-third of the nations mine problems with over 45 mine fires burning across the state including the famous and tourist attraction of Centralia. There are five underground fires in Allegheny County, five in Percy County, one in Westmoreland, and others in more isolated areas. fire_eastern_kentucky.jpg There are also fires in Findlay Twp., West Elizabeth, Plum, and Clinton. "In all, the DEP estimates about 1,300 acres across the state are on fire underground". One particular town, Youngstown, is under the wrath of the Percy fire that has been burning for over 30 years. There are about 60 homes resting on top of this fire now. Youngstown is reaching the critical decision point that Centralia reached in 1983, either extinguish the fire or relocate the whole town. Estimates conclude that extinguishing the Percy fire will cost $30 to $40 million, and over $650 million to put out all nationwide fires (estimate from a study and report made in 1998 - what is the real cost today, 2016?). In USA, according to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), in 2013 there were 98 underground mine fires in 9 US states. This is considered to be an underestimate for the actual number of fires nationwide. USA Economic Cost of Coal Seam Fires. In the United States, the combined cost of coal-fire remediation projects, completed, budgeted, or projected by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), exceeds $1 billion, with about 90% of that in two States, Pennsylvania and West Virginia (Office of Surface Mining Enforcement and Reclamation, 2008;). Altogether, 15 States have combined cumulative OSM coal-fire project costs exceeding $1 million, with the greatest overall expense occurring in States where underground coal fires are predominant over surface fires, reflecting the greater cost of extinguishing underground fires.


For almost a century, hellish fires has been burning deep underground in Jharia, India. Originating in 1916 as a result of coal mines that were improperly shut down, the fires have burned through more than 10 million tons of coal burns annually contributing a further 51 million metric tons of carbon dixide to the atmosphre. The Bihar 1934 earthquake led to further spread of fire and by 1938 the authorities had declared that there is raging fire beneath the town with 42 collieries out of 133 on fire. fire_india_bokahapadi.jpg In 1972, more than 70 mine fires were reported in this region. In 2007, more than 400,000 people who resided in Jharia wre still living on polluted land and in danger. According to experts, Jharia has enough coal to burn for another 3,800 years.... These fires also pollute water by contaminating it and increasing its acidity, which is due to a certain percentage of sulphur that is present in coal. These fires lead to degradation of land and do not allow any vegetation to grow in the area. The fire never stopped despite sincere efforts by mines department and railway authorities. Jharia township is on the brink of an ecological and human disaster. Another example is the underground coal fire is at Bokahapadi Village in Jharia, Jharrkhand on February 11, 2010. Women and children as young as 5 years old scavenge daily at the open and underground mines Jharia. The coal fields here were once used by companies, but then abandoned.



2015 - Firefighters have been trying to put out for over a month a coal seam fire at Hazelwell Mine (State of Victoria, in Australia). Spot fires are likely when a bushfire burns into a coal seam as the fire spreads back into the bush. In 2015, for example, a bushfire at Catherine Hill Bay in New South Wales was sparked by an underground coal fire that was impossible to put out and which destroyed several homes and burnt out almost 3,000 hectares of bushland. In 2015, accross the State more than 1,250 firefighters battled to put out blazes across the state, with over 360 trucks deployed and around 89,000 hectares burnt, reported the RFS (Australia's Rural Fire Service). How many and how often do these bush fires ignite coal seam close to the surface? In the Hazelwood situation the coal fire was started by the grass fire. The coal seam at this mine is very close to the surface, so the heat from the grass fire would easily transfer to the coal seam.


No accurate count of coal seam fires has been completed in Indonesia. Only a minuscule fraction of the country has been surveyed for coal fires. The best data available come from a study based on systematic, on-the-ground observation. In 1998, a total of 125 coal fires were located and mapped within a 2-kilometer strip either side of a 100-kilometer stretch of road north of Balikpapan to Samarinda in East Kalimantan, using hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment. Extrapolating this data to areas on Borneo and Sumatra underlain by known coal deposits, it was estimated that more than 250,000 coal seam fires may have been burning in Indonesia (1998). What is the situation in 2016 - far worse, many experts believe because mining is not the only human intensifier of the fires.

The conomy is growing and huge tracts of land once covered by rain forest (and underlain by near-surface coal) is fast being logged for agriculture (mostly for palm oil). After logging, the preferred method for clearing the land is by fire. The practice has ignited perhaps 3,000 coal fires since 1982, destroying houses, schools and mosques. Heavy smoke carpets much of Southeast Asia, blocking out sunlight, causing crop failures, reducing visibility and with serious health problems for the local people (reportedly causing an epidemic of asthma). Indonesia is destroying its rainforests faster than any other tropical nation, and it is at the heart of the recurring air-pollution crisis in Southeast Asia. Its policies will have a huge impact on forests, biodiversity and the global climate.


The Alaska Division of Forestry is monitoring two, and possibly three, coal seam fires that popped up near Healy as a result of the recent hot, dry, windy weather. Coal seam fires are a common occurrence in the area and occasionally come to life when the conditions are right.

Airborne and Satellite
Remote Sensing Techniques

A surface coalfire can be detected easily but a subsurface coalfire can burn over time without any surface activity. However, there are many commercial and research scanners (both air and satellite) that are acquiring thermal infrared data and mapping coal seam fires all over the world. fire_thermograph_image.JPG Above is an infrared image of a coal seam burning underground in an open cast mine - note the mining vehicle for scale.

Fighting Coal Seam Fires

Coal seam fires are highly polluting ecologically and is detrimental on our health; yet many coal fires are left to burn because mine fires are too dangerous, costly and difficult to deal with. But a commercial firefighting company, CAFSCO Fire Control, based in Fort Worth, Texas, has its sights set on ending Centralia's famous underground mine fire. The company's compressed nitrogen foam system (originally invented to combat forest fires) has been adapted to fight underground coal fires with much success across the United States, according to CAFSCO.

In 2007, CAFSCO put out its largest coal fire yet, pumping more than 700 million gallons of foam (non-corrosive, non-toxic, and biodegradable) into a coal mine in Claypool Hill, Va. The company says Centralia could be put out in about a month, for about $60 million. Budget issues aside, Dr Stracher (professor of Geology and Physics) sees extinguishing Centralia as an opportunity to change how coal fires are dealt with, not just in the United States, but also around the world. “If we can put out Centralia, one of the most problematic and longest-burning fires in the U.S., it could be a turning point. Now that we have the technology to deal with this staggering source of pollution, it's high time we start putting it to use."

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