Most people can’t tell, but Colorado is home to 38 actively burning underground coal fires—and there’s not much that can be done about them. Instead of actively fighting these blazes, Colorado firefighters tend to focus on mitigating the harmful effects that the long-term burning can have on the environment and nearby population.
While it’s possible for coal to catch fire spontaneously from a build-up of oxygen underground, the industrialization of coal mining has increased the frequency of these fires significantly. Mining exposes large amounts of coal to oxygen and the fire hazards of the earth’s surface. Once sparked, coal fires turn into fiery pits that poison the air, occasionally causing wildfires and sinkholes should they collapse in on themselves.
In arid Colorado, burning coal seams have caused wildfires on several occasions, like the one discovered last year in Dolores. The state does its best to monitor known sites of exposed and burning coal, cutting back nearby vegetation and putting up signs for unsuspecting passersby.
Unfortunately, effectively stopping a blaze of this nature can prove difficult. Even if specialty foam and blockages are used to stop the fire in one spot, that same fire might be eating its way in another direction far underground just to surface elsewhere. The most effective way to put out a coal fire is to dig it up completely, but if it’s spreading deep beneath a mountain, that approach can become unrealistic.
These fires continue burning persistently until they run out of either coal or oxygen. Most famously, an Australian coal seam has been burning for some 5,500 years. Here in Colorado, the old Vulcan mine near New Castle has been burning for more than 120 years.
Old mines, like the Vulcan mine, were built with intentional airflow systems so that the miners could breathe. Today, coal fires feed voraciously on this continual supply of oxygen sweeping into the shafts. Fires in unmined coal seams may draw oxygen from natural ground venting.
Frustration arises from the fact that these fires often burn high quality, accessible coal that could otherwise be mined for profit. However, from an environmental standpoint, the damage caused by a coal seam fire goes far beyond these economic concerns.
The amount of air pollution emitted by these perpetually-burning coal seams is far from negligible. Estimates from the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety put their methane emissions at 2,800 tons per year and compare overall greenhouse gas emissions to 25,000 vehicles driving 10,000 miles annually – and that’s just in Colorado.
Nationwide, as many as 200 underground coal fires may be burning, many of which are largely unreported. Internationally, that number becomes far larger, amounting to a likely-gigantic-but-unquantified amount of air pollution.
As nations struggle to cooperate on climate change action, this issue is gaining attention, albeit marginally. These fires remain largely uncontrollable—even if governments could cooperate to step away from coal as a power source, greenhouse gases would still be pouring out of coal seams.
On a local level, the noxious gases produced by these fires could be damaging to human health. The emissions are similar to those one might encounter in a smoggy city. The pollutants can be carcinogenic, as well as harmful to the lungs, heart, and immune system. A concentration of dangerous chemicals (like carbon monoxide) is found near exposed burning seams, posing a serious obstacle to firefighting efforts.
With approximately 23,000 abandoned mines in Colorado, coal seam fires will likely remain a risk for the foreseeable future despite continued efforts of local firefighters. Even if a mine does not appear to be on fire, don’t be tempted to go mine spelunking. In the words of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety: “stay out, stay alive.”
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