- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Based on preliminary research, conducted in Wuda, in China's Inner Mongolia province, underground coal fires are putting harmful chemicals into the air and perhaps affecting climate on a global scale, according to the coordinator of a 60-member German-Chinese scientific team examining such fires.

The effort is wide-ranging and involves a number of disciplines, including geophysics, materials science, mining technology and coal geology. Researchers are attempting to examine how such fires start, how to fight them and what impact the gases emitted affect both people and the environment.

Stefan Voigt, of the German Remote Sensing Data Center in Wessling, reported the team has found chlorine and sulfur emissions from coal fires in Wuda.

"These (emissions) affect the environment and the people in the surroundings," Voigt told United Press International. For example, groundwater can become contaminated when the chlorine and sulfur leach back into the ground or pollute the soil, Voigt said.

"What doesn't condense on the soil is absorbed into the atmosphere and becomes acid rain. That's a terrible problem in China," said Glenn Stracher, a geologist at East Georgia College. Stracher is working on the research arranging to have the chemical samples analyzed, though he is not part of the Chinese-German research team.

"Inhaling the droplets that have hydrochloric acid or sulfuric acid will cause lung irritation (and) causes respiratory damage," said Robert Finkelman, a United States Geological Survey geochemist, who has studied the consequences of underground coal fires for decades. He is not connected with the research in China.

Though the amount of chlorine and sulfur from these fires has yet to be determined, Finkelman said there is reason to be wary of what is happening.

"Whenever there is introduction of potentially toxic substances into the environment, there is reason to be concerned," he told UPI, adding that more research is needed, such as finding out how far the gases travel and what sort of chemical reactions they can precipitate.

"I wouldn't be an alarmist," Finkelman said. "I would say this is a potential problem to determine whether or not there is a hazard here."

In the United States, he said, even though about 120 coal fires are burning, researchers have not yet assessed the impact of pollutants on the environment and health of people.

"I think it's worthwhile to test the gases coming off these fires," he said.

"I was astonished that this is not being done in the States," said Voigt, who with Stracher and Finkelman discussed the issue during a panel on underground coal fires in February at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Denver.

The underground coal fires in China comprise but one instance of what Stracher considers a potential global environmental crisis.

"Wherever these fires burn they destroy floral and faunal habitats. They cause human suffering. They put all sorts of pollutants into the atmosphere," he told UPI.

At present, underground coal fires are burning in India, the United States and Indonesia, Stracher wrote in a forthcoming paper to be published in the International Journal of Coal Geology. He co-authored the paper with Tammy Taylor of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Human activity can start an underground coal fire, as can natural events. In 1962, a Pennsylvania local government's decision to burn trash in an abandoned strip mine ignited an underground coal fire in Centralia. Eleven hundred residents had to be evacuated between 1985 and 1991 at a cost to the U.S. government of $42 million, according to Stracher and Taylor.

The fires in Wuda are the result of mining activities.

Coal fires also are prehistoric, said Dan Coates of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. He said he has discovered evidence of coal fires several million years ago in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

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