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A global 'catastrophe' -- coal fires threaten environment, human health

DENVER, CO Major underground fires are blazing in the world's coal-producing nations, threatening the environment and human health, scientists said today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting. Although some coal fires can be impossible to extinguish, new technologies provide hope that experts may someday be able to control them, if not put them out altogether.

"Coal fires are a global catastrophe," said Glenn Stracher of East Georgia College. But, surprisingly few people know it, he added.

"For most people who don't live near one of these fires, it never reaches them," Stracher said. "There may be a little clip in the newspaper, but most people aren't aware of the extent of the problems involved in these fires."

The coal fire problem is 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.

According to Stracher's forthcoming article in the International Journal of Coal Geology, scientists have determined that coal fires in China consume up to 200 million tons of coal per year. For comparison, coal consumption in the United States during 2000 was just over one billion tons, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. (Please see the web site, http://www.eia.doe.gov /cneaf/coal/statepro/imagemap/us1p1.html)

The Hazards of Coal Fires

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.

Once underway, coal fires can burn for decades, even centuries. In the process, they release large vo
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13-Feb-2003


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