After 50 Years, China Putting Out Coal Fires

Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.
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A coal mine in China's Inner Mongolia. (Photo: Wolfiewolf/Flickr)

Tired of hearing about the BP oil spill? Imagine if it went on for 50 years.

That’s what’s been happening in Inner Mongolia, where coal seam fires—underground deposits of coal that smolder into flames—have been spewing tons of greenhouse gases and toxic fumes into the atmosphere every year since the 1960s.

China is finally doing something about it. According to Ya Saning, head of the region’s Economic and Information Commission, the regional government is targeting smoldering fires at 66 locations, covering an area of nearly 27 square kilometers.

The plan is to cover the fires with sand, while digging away the coal threatened by fire hazards. Underground, they plan to pump slurry—a suspension of solids and liquids—into the seams to extinguish the smoldering coals.

Ya Saning projects that the $30 million plan will extinguish half the fires in Inner Mongolia coal fields by 2012. Environmental impact aside, the uncontrolled burning is also a huge waste of coal.

"More than 20 million tons of coal is wasted every year in our region due to the smoldering fires,” said Ya Saning, adding that the fires “also cause serious air pollution."

Unfortunately, underground coal fires are nothing new. In 1962, a fire that started in a dumpster in Pennsylvania mining town spread underground and ignited a subterranean coal fire. It continues to burn today. 

Still, it’s a far cry from Australia’s famous Burning Mountain. The oldest known coal seam fire in the world has been burning since before the Ancient Egyptians—more than 6,000 years.

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