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Rock Doc: As coal fires rage, concerns persist

As everyone who reads this paper knows, it’s wildfire season in the West.

Wildfires in grasslands often last just a couple of hours or days, and forest fires are generally measured in days to weeks.

But another kind of fire 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 places like South Africa, Australia, China and India. 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 underground). And once a major coal seam is ignited, it’s quite difficult to control. Putting out a significant coal blaze by hand can be 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 a technical paper from the Department of Energy I’ve been studying, about 2 percent of all annual industrial global emissions of carbon dioxide comes as a byproduct of unwanted coal fires in China alone.

But I’m not picking on China. We’ve got problematic coal fires burning here in America including one near Laurel Run, Pa., 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 collapses from time to time. It has these characteristics because, when the town’s landfill was burned in 1962, it lit a coal seam just under the trash pit. The fire has been burning since.

At the end of the First Gulf War, 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 could take years. But in fact, due to the work of an American company and the best technology of the day, most of the fires were put out quite quickly.

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.

E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, who was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. A library of past Rock Doc columns is available at This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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