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Fire in the Hole

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Author Topic: Fire in the Hole  (Read 153 times)
Lisa Wolfe
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« on: June 18, 2009, 11:59:41 pm »

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.
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