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Denver 2003 Friday, 14 February, 2003, 00:53 GMT
Coal fires are 'global catastrophe'
Fire, Gary Colaizzi/Goodson and Associates Inc
Smouldering mountain: The fires can be difficult to tackle
Amos, BBC

Hundreds of coal fires are burning out of control around the world, pumping huge quantities of carbon dioxide and pollutants into the atmosphere.

It's in no-one's interest to have these fires burning

Alfred Whitehouse, US Ministry of Energy
The problem was described as a "global catastrophe" on Thursday by researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) annual meeting in Denver.

They said that putting out the fires in China alone would cut CO2 emissions equivalent to the volume produced by all US automobiles in a year.

"We need to get the word out to people to explain to them just what a problem this is," said Glenn Stracher of East Georgia College.

Still ablaze

The coal fires are burning on the surface and underground.

They are most severe in countries such as China, India, and Indonesia, although smaller fires are still burning in the United States, for example in Colorado and Pennsylvania.

These ultra-hot fires can occur naturally - the right combination of sunlight and oxygen can cause spontaneous combustion - but they are frequently caused by humans.

In these cases, the burning coal may be located either in abandoned mines or waste piles, or in coal seams ignited by heat from above-ground fires set to clear the landscape for farming.

In Indonesia, the forest fires that began during drought conditions in 1982 started fires in surface outcrops of coal that still burn today, said Alfred Whitehouse, of the US Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources Coal Fire Project.

"In 1997-98, five million hectares of forest burnt in Borneo. Of the resulting coal fires that started, 159 are still burning; 106 we have extinguished," he said.

Coal fires now threaten some of Indonesia's national parks and a nature reserve that is being used as a reintroduction site for the endangered orangutan.

'Shaving gel'

Technologies are being developed to tackle the infernos that are often in hard-to-access locations, such as deep-mine tunnels.

Gary Colaizzi's engineering firm, Goodson and Associates Inc, has produced a heat-resistant "grout", a mixture of sand, cement, fly ash, water, and foam that can be pumped around burning material.

The grout has the "consistency of shaving gel".

"It eliminates the fire's oxygen sources, it reduces the heat and actually isolates the burning coal," he said.

"It can address underground coal fires, coal stockpile fires, and surface fires in open pits. And it's economical because we are using fly ash, a primary waste material from coal-burning power stations."

Climate change

Satellites are now being used to try to gauge the scale of the worldwide problem. In China in particular, this is helping the authorities detect and monitor the fires in the northern regions of the country.

The remote sensing data are being used to explore how such fires evolve and what the best approaches might be for extinguishing them.

Curbing coal fires could be a way of mitigating the effects of climate change by reducing CO2 emissions. Some estimates suggest the Chinese fires could be accounting for as much as 2-3% of the annual world emissions of CO2 from burning fossil fuels.

"It's in no-one's interest to have these fires burning. It costs the coal resource, it's contributing to the greenhouse, it's a public safety and health problem and it's an ignition source for new forest fires," said Alfred Whitehouse.

"This is an opportunity to go after a source of CO2 emissions that doesn't hurt anyone's present consumption but will reduce the overall numbers."

The BBC's Richard Black
"The fires can burn for decades"
Denver, BBC

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03 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
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