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Fire in the Hole

Raging in mines from Pennsylvania to China, coal fires threaten towns, poison air and water, and add to global warming

From the back kitchen window of his little house on a ridge in east-central Pennsylvania, John Lokitis looks out on a most unusual prospect. Just uphill, at the edge of St.IgnatiusCemetery, the earth is ablaze. Vegetation has been obliterated along a quarter-mile strip; sulfurous steam billows out of hundreds of fissures and holes in the mud. There are pits extending perhaps 20 feet down: in their depths, discarded plastic bottles and tires have melted. Dead trees, their trunks bleached white, lie in tangled heaps, stumps venting smoke through hollow centers. Sometimes fumes seep across the cemetery fence to the grave of Lokitis’ grandfather, George Lokitis.

This hellish landscape constitutes about all that remains of 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.

Remarkably enough, nobody’s doing a thing about 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,” says Steve Jones, a geologist with the state’s Office of Surface Mining. “If you aren’t going to put it out, what can you do? Move the people.”Nearly all 1,100 residents left after they were offered federally funded compensation for their properties. Their abandoned houses were leveled. Today Centralia exists only as an eerie grid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of a picket fence here, a chair spindle there—plus Lokitis and 11 others who refused to leave, the occupants of a dozen scattered structures. Lokitis, 35, lives alone in the house he inherited from “Pop”—his grandfather, a coal miner, as was Pop’s father before him. For fans of the macabre, lured by a sign warning of DANGER from asphyxiation or being swallowed into the ground, Centralia has become a tourist destination. For Lokitis, it is home.

Across the globe, thousands of coal fires are burning. Nearly impossible to reach and extinguish once they get started, the underground blazes threaten towns and roads, poison the air and soil and, some say, worsen global warming. The menace is growing: mines open coal beds to oxygen; human-induced fires or spontaneous combustion provides the spark. The United States, with the world’s largest coal reserves, harbors hundreds of blazes from Alaska to Alabama. Pennsylvania, the worst-afflicted state, has at least 38—an insignificant number compared with China (see sidebar, “Flaming Dragon,” p. 58) and India, where poverty, old unregulated mining practices and runaway development have created waves of Centralias. “It’s a worldwide catastrophe,” says geologist Anupma Prakash of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Some of the underground fires are natural occurrences. When coal, exposed at or near the surface by erosion, combines with oxygen, a chemical reaction produces heat. That process can build for years; low-grade, soft coals—crumbly and low in carbon—can spontaneously combust, at temperatures as low as 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightning or a brush fire can also ignite soft coal. The fires burn downward, acquiring air through fissures in rock and microscopic spaces between grains of dirt. An underground fire may smolder for years, or even decades, without showing signs on the surface. Eventually, however, in a process called subsidence, burning subterranean coal turns to ash, creating huge underground voids and causing overlying ground to crack and collapse—thus allowing more air in, which fans more fire. Much of the landscape of the American West— its mesas and escarpments—is the result of vast, ancient coal fires. Those conflagrations formed “clinker”—a hard mass of fused stony matter. Surfaces formed in this way resist erosion far better than adjacent unfired ones, leaving clinker outcrops. Many ancient fires like those still burn, from the Canadian Arctic to southeast Australia. Scientists estimate that Australia’s BurningMountain, the oldest known coal fire, has burned for 6,000 years. In the 19th century, explorers mistook the smoking summit for a volcano.

Natural though the fires may be, humans intensify the scale. China, for example, supplies 75 percent of its energy with coal as it hurtles toward industrialization. Due to mining of its vast coal fields, fires are spreading. Estimates vary, but some scientists believe that anywhere from 20 million to 200 million tons burn there each year, producing as much carbon dioxide as about 1 percent of the total carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned on earth. Another human intensifier: rural Chinese people tend to hand-dig household coal from hundreds of thousands of surface locations, then abandon them when the cavities get too deep. The practice leaves the earth punctured by countless small pits; inside, loose coal chunks and powder are exposed to air, making them highly combustible.

Beginning in 1993, Chinese scientists joined with Dutch and, later, German researchers to map China’s coal fires from satellites and aircraft, leading to the discovery of many new fires. “We know there are thousands, but it is too hard to count,” says Stefan Voigt, a geographer at the GermanAerospaceCenter near Munich. Extinguishing the fires would require heavy equipment to dig them out and smother them with soil—but China is still largely dependent on picks and shovels. “The Chinese recognize the problem,” says Voigt, “but sometimes they’ll say: ‘We don’t need more science. We need more bulldozers.’ ”

China has the most coal fires, but India, where largescale mining began more than a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of them. Rising surface temperatures, and toxic byproducts in groundwater and soil, have turned the densely populated Raniganj, Singareni and Jharia coal fields into vast wastelands. Subsidence has forced relocations of villages and roads—then re-relocations, as fire fronts advance. Rail lines give way; buildings disappear. In 1995, a Jharia riverbank was undermined by fire and crumbled; water rushed into underground mines, killing 78. Perhaps the most terrifying spectacle is the unquenched fire itself: many blazes smoldered quietly in old underground tunnels until recently, when modern strip pits exposed them to air. The revitalized flames erupted, engulfing the region in a haze of soot, carbon monoxide and compounds of sulfur and nitrogen. Burning coal also releases arsenic, fluorine and selenium. (Studies in China have suggested that the millions of people who use coal for cooking are being slowly poisoned by such elements.) Even so, workers continue to labor in this highly toxic environment.

And despite a 1990s World Bank study that outlined measures to combat the fires, little has been done to address the problem in either China or India. Prakash and other experts blame bureaucracy, corruption and the sheer overwhelming scale of the problem. “It’s just crazy,” she says.

Mining is not the only human intensifier of the fires. In Indonesia, huge tracts of land once covered by rain forest— and underlain by near-surface coal—is fast being logged, then cleared for agriculture. The preferred method: 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 and causing crop failures as well as reducing visibility and, in at least one case, triggering an oil-tanker collision. The smoke is also implicated in an epidemic of asthma. On a smaller scale, a related phenomenon has occurred in the United States; near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for example, an old coal mine has burned for the past 100 years. In the summer of 2002, the blaze ignited a forest fire that consumed 12,000 acres and 43 buildings. Putting it out cost $6.5 million. And the mine still burns.

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