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Break the glass, douse the flames

POSTED November 24, 2009 9:54 p.m.
As everyone who watches the evening news knows, in the western United States wildfires and forest fires are common enough in the late summer. Young people work diligently on fire-crews here in the West, fighting one of nature’s great forces. Out-of-control blazes in our National Forests are all but an annual event, with only the number and intensity of the fires varying from year to year.  
Wildfires in grasslands often last just a couple of hours or days, and forest fires in trees are generally measured in days to weeks. In other words, all such fires are relatively short-lived. And that, as my young friends would say, is a “clear positive.”
A clear negative must be acknowledged for another type of uncontrolled fire, a kind that burns year round, not just for a season — and, in fact, generally blazes for decades. These are the fires geologists know best, and it’s time that others learned about them.  
The fires I have in mind are made of burning coal. Such unwanted coal fires rage or smolder in the United States, South Africa, Australia, China, India, and beyond. They are burning in huge volumes in rural China and blazing in a district of India to such a great extent the flames from some surface coal fires are over 20 feet high. Here in the U.S. they are burning in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Colorado, and Wyoming as you read these words.
People with little experience of coal may think it should be a simple matter to put out a coal blaze. Buckets of water, some would guess, should quench the flames, like water on a charcoal grill. But, in fact, coal can burn very hot (when oxygen is available at the surface) or smolder slowly (when little air is around under the surface). And once a major coal seam is ignited underground or near the surface of the Earth, it’s quite difficult to control. Putting out a significant coal blaze by hand is almost impossible.  
The public might also be surprised to learn the total effect of these unwanted coal fires. Carbon dioxide production from unwanted coal fires around the world is enormous. And because coal underground burns incompletely to a variety of gases, there are also other greenhouse gases beyond carbon dioxide that are at issue, such as methane and carbon monoxide.
According to one technical paper from the Department of Energy I’ve been studying lately, about 2 percent of all annual industrial global emissions of carbon dioxide come as a byproduct of unwanted coal fires in China alone. In other words, coal fires in China — which are legion because their mines are often hand-dug into near-surface coal seams, a practice going back to antiquity – are adding a couple of percent to our total global production of carbon dioxide from industrial sources like powerplants and auto engines.
But I’m not picking on China. We’ve got coal fires burning here in America including one near Laurel Run, Pennsylvania that’s burned since 1915. And perhaps you’ve heard the story of a hamlet called Centralia that’s also located in coal country in Pennsylvania?
Centralia is basically unlivable today because of a coal blaze. The Earth itself in the town is hot, the air is tainted with smoke and toxic gasses, and the ground itself collapses from time to time. It has these characteristics because, when the town’s landfill trash was burned off in 1962, it lit a coal seam just under the trash pit. From that day to this one, the fire has been burning.
At the end of the first Gulf War, the reader may remember that Saddam Hussein’s forces left Kuwait’s oilfields ablaze when they retreated to Iraq. It was said at the time that putting out the oilfield fires would take many years. But in fact, due to the work of an American company and the best technology of the day, most of the fires were out within months.  
Coal fires pose some different problems than oil-fires, but it’s time we turned up our sleeves to address the blazes that we most likely can douse. We would be helping the folks living near the fires today, as well as our posterity tomorrow.   
— Dr. E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. A library of past Rock Doc columns is available at www.rockdoc.wsu.edu.This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.  
 

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