2003 Thursday 0:58 AM Eastern Time
By HARVEY BLACK
Based on preliminary
research, conducted in Wuda, in China's Inner Mongolia
province, underground coal fires are putting harmful chemicals
into the air and perhaps affecting climate on a global scale,
according to the coordinator of a 60-member German-Chinese
scientific team examining such fires.
The effort is wide-ranging and involves a number of
disciplines, including geophysics, materials science, mining
technology and coal geology. Researchers are attempting to
examine how such fires start, how to fight them and what
impact the gases emitted affect both people and the
Stefan Voigt, of the German Remote Sensing Data Center in
Wessling, reported the team has found chlorine and sulfur
emissions from coal fires in Wuda.
"These (emissions) affect the environment and the people in
the surroundings," Voigt told United Press International. For
example, groundwater can become contaminated when the chlorine
and sulfur leach back into the ground or pollute the soil,
"What doesn't condense on the soil is absorbed into the
atmosphere and becomes acid rain. That's a terrible problem in
China," said Glenn Stracher, a geologist at East Georgia
College. Stracher is working on the research arranging to have
the chemical samples analyzed, though he is not part of the
Chinese-German research team.
"Inhaling the droplets that have hydrochloric acid or sulfuric
acid will cause lung irritation (and) causes respiratory
damage," said Robert Finkelman, a United States Geological
Survey geochemist, who has studied the consequences of
underground coal fires for decades. He is not connected with
the research in China.
Though the amount of chlorine and sulfur from these fires has
yet to be determined, Finkelman said there is reason to be
wary of what is happening.
"Whenever there is introduction of potentially toxic
substances into the environment, there is reason to be
concerned," he told UPI, adding that more research is needed,
such as finding out how far the gases travel and what sort of
chemical reactions they can precipitate.
"I wouldn't be an alarmist," Finkelman said. "I would say this
is a potential problem to determine whether or not there is a
In the United States, he said, even though about 120 coal
fires are burning, researchers have not yet assessed the
impact of pollutants on the environment and health of people.
"I think it's worthwhile to test the gases coming off these
fires," he said.
"I was astonished that this is not being done in the States,"
said Voigt, who with Stracher and Finkelman discussed the
issue during a panel on underground coal fires in February at
the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual
meeting in Denver.
The underground coal fires in China comprise but one instance
of what Stracher considers a potential global environmental
"Wherever these fires burn they destroy floral and faunal
habitats. They cause human suffering. They put all sorts of
pollutants into the atmosphere," he told UPI.
At present, underground coal fires are burning in India, the
United States and Indonesia, Stracher wrote in a forthcoming
paper to be published in the International Journal of Coal
Geology. He co-authored the paper with Tammy Taylor of the Los
Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Human activity can start an underground coal fire, as can
natural events. In 1962, a Pennsylvania local government's
decision to burn trash in an abandoned strip mine ignited an
underground coal fire in Centralia. Eleven hundred residents
had to be evacuated between 1985 and 1991 at a cost to the
U.S. government of $42 million, according to Stracher and
The fires in Wuda are the result of mining activities.
Coal fires also are prehistoric, said Dan Coates of the
California Regional Water Quality Control Board. He said he
has discovered evidence of coal fires several million years
ago in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.