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"Murphy was an optimist!"

Oh! That acid rain… July 25, 2007 5:21 am

Posted by Doug McCaughan in : Environment, Science, Touchy Subjects
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Wow! The things that we miss. I just learned that Pennsylvania has had an underground fire burning for 45 years and that it is likely to burn for another 245 years!

An exposed vein of coal ignited in 1962 due to the standard policy of burning the garbage on a weekly basis in the borough landfill, located in an abandoned mine pit in the southeast portion of Centralia. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and it continued to burn throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

There are no current plans to extinguish the fire, which is consuming an eight-mile seam containing enough coal to fuel it for 250 years.

Apparently, at $42 million, it is cheaper to move a town than extinguish the fire.

The federal and state governments gave up trying to extinguish the fire in the 1980s. “Pennsylvania didn’t have enough money in the bank to do the job,” says Steve Jones, a geologist with the state’s Office of Surface Mining.

Across the globe, thousands of coal fires are burning. Nearly impossible to reach and extinguish once they get started, the underground blazes threaten towns and roads, poison the air and soil and, some say, worsen global warming. … The United States, with the world’s largest coal reserves, harbors hundreds of blazes from Alaska to Alabama. Pennsylvania, the worst-afflicted state, has at least 38—an insignificant number compared with China and India, where poverty, old unregulated mining practices and runaway development have created waves of Centralias.

Scientists estimate that Australia’s BurningMountain, the oldest known coal fire, has burned for 6,000 years.

…in the United States; near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for example, an old coal mine has burned for the past 100 years.

So, why are we still using coal?

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1. JayMonster - July 25, 2007

Why? Because it is certainly an efficient burner. I mean “8 miles of gasoline” wouldn’t last 2 and a half centuries, yet that is how long this fire is estimated to burn.

Besides, the fires are not because of our use of coal, but often (as in the case of Centralia) because of our own ineptness. I mean, “the town’s long standing practice of burning their trash”? Really? Doesn’t sound like the brightest idea to me. And where do they burn it? At the mouth of an abandoned coal mine. Apparently in the 1960’s brains were in short supply when it came to the environment.

2. WillFull - July 25, 2007

We’re still using coal because it’s a necessary component of our steel industry (well, what industry is left). Power companies today still propose the use of coal as a means to generate electricity, and considering the cheap cost of coal, it is still a viable option in locations who are too remote or cannot afford the cost of importing electricity. Of course, it’s not as common today as it was about a hundred years ago, but that doesn’t diminish it’s usefulness.

Centralia, PA, is an interesting story, I’ll agree. And what’s more amazing about it is that there are still some stubborn people living there (amid all the sulfur and dioxins being exhaled from the fire). For a good, but brief, account about the background story, I recommend Bill Bryson’s 1998 best-selling book, A Walk In The Woods. Not only does Bryson give a good personal account of his experience with visiting Centralia, but I think you’ll appreciate his narration on nature vs. society with the book as a whole, especially after your recent excursion to the woods.

3. WillFull - July 25, 2007

Also forgot to mention: I think Bryson says in his book that there are claims that the Centralia fire is expected to burn another THOUSAND years due to the size and reach of the coal veins spreading their way underneath Centralia. That’s just hard to imagine, same way with Chernobyl, that there are places on this Earth we have made uninhabitable because of the follies of man.

4. JayMonster - July 25, 2007

While you are right in the case of Centralia specifically (or by accounts you are believed to be correct), Coal Fires are also far more common all over the planet, and some have been already burning for centuries, so I wouldn’t so much blame them as the foilbles of man (like Chernobyl) since in theory anyway, this could have well happened without man’s intervention.

5. WillFull - July 25, 2007

@ JayMonster:

“Apparently in the 1960’s brains were in short supply when it came to the environment.”

I totally hear ya. When I began my military rotation at Fort Carson back in the early 90s, there was an extensive environmental project taking place at each motor pool located on the post. They hired contractors to come in, remove tons of dirts surrounding the fence of each pool, haul the contaminated dirt off to be disposed of properly, and then fills those holes with clean dirt. This process was to take at least a year, costing taxpayers in the millions (and I’m sure Carson wasn’t the only post to be hit by this).

And why?

In the 1950s and 60s, the official Dept of the Army operation manuals that were printed for maintenance of tracked and wheeled vehicles recommended to the mechanic or soldier that once you have changed the oil or transmission fluid, to pour the used, replaced fluid along the fenceline of the motor pool in order to discourage the growth of weeds.


A good example of the hindsight of prior generations and how it impacts us today. I would love to get a hold of one of those manuals to see those words with my own eyes. I could only imagine that the passage was written by some bored clerk who came up with the idea of recycling the use of spent crankcase oil while he was typing up the manual. Probably the same guy who spent a lot of mundane duty time pulling up weeds at the company motor pool.

6. WillFull - July 25, 2007

@ JayMonster:

I think I was blaming man in that comment because, you know, it’s a really good idea when you should burn your town’s trash over by the coal mine. 😉

7. tim - July 25, 2007

having consulted to a major wold wide coal mine company (AngloCoal) for the last 5 years I have learnt lots about coal I didnt know before. this stuff is pretty interesting.

but as was pointed out by willfull coal is probably the cheapest fuel source we have. there are huge reserves, and potentially it is renewable – as coal can be created given the righ conditions.

if you think the coal fires are bad – think about the nuclear bombs the usa exolded on their own soil http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Plumbbob

8. Doug McCaughan - July 26, 2007

Since that fire (and so many others) is burning so long and so hot, I wonder why some creative person doesn’t build a steam plant or something over it and make use of the heat. “Nature’s Smelter – the environmentally clean iron factory”