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Deep Underground, Miles of Hidden Wildfires Rage

July 27, 2010

From Time

Three blistering fires are blazing through Wyoming’s scenic Powder River Basin, but firefighters aren’t paying any attention. Other than a faint hint of acrid odors and a single ribbon of smoke rising from a tiny crack beyond the nearby Tongue River, a long look across the region’s serene grassland shows no sign of trouble.

That’s what makes the three infernos, and the toxins they spew, so sinister. Their flames are concealed deep underground, in coal seams and oxygen-rich fissures, which makes containment near impossible. Shielded from fire hoses and aerial assaults, the flames are chewing through coal seams 20 feet thick, spanning 22 acres. They’re also belching greenhouse gases and contaminants, contributing to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind environmental hazard that extends far beyond Wyoming’s borders. “Every coal basin in the world has fires sending up organic compounds that are not good for you,” says Mark Engle, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who studies the Powder River Basin, “but unless you live close to them you probably never see them.” See TIME’s photoessay “Wildfires Burn Across California.”

A surprising number of us live close to them. According to a review by the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Enforcement and Reclamation, more than 100 fires are burning beneath nine states, most of them in Colorado, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Utah and West Virginia. But geologists say many fires go unreported, driving the actual number of them closer to 200 across 21 states. Most have burned for years, if not decades. Pennsylvania’s three dozen underground fires include America’s most notorious subterranean blaze, a 48-year-old fire in Centralia, whose noxious emissions sickened residents and eventually prompted the federal government in the late 1980s and early ’90s to evict homeowners and pay them a collective $40 million for what is now a virtual ghost town.

Internationally, thousands of underground coal fires are burning on every continent except Antarctica. Anupma Prakash, a University of Alaska at Fairbanks geologist who maps the fires, calls them “a worldwide catastrophe with no geographic territory, and if we don’t take care of them they’re going to take a toll on us.” The problem is most acute in industrializing, coal-rich nations such as China, where underground fires are consuming at least 10 million tons of coal annually — and some estimates multiply that amount twentyfold. In India, 68 fires are burning beneath a 58-square-mile region of the Jhairia coalfield near Dhanbad, showering residents in airborne toxins. “Go there and within 24 hours you’re spitting out mucous with coal particles,” Prakash says. “It’s bad, worse than any city, anywhere.”

From Time

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