10 September 2005 -- Issue #11 Editor: Michael J. Ross
The PristinePlanet.com team joins with other members of the ecological community in expressing our sadness over the recent tragic events in New Orleans, Mississippi, and the Gulf Region. During these difficult times, our thoughts are with the hurricane victims and their loved ones.
During the last days of August 2005, the tropical storm named "Katrina", having reached hurricane strength, struck the southern coast of the United States, and began cutting a 125-mile swath of death and destruction from coastal Alabama to New Orleans. Having such a heavy concentration of people, industry, and American culture, the damage to New Orleans was especially severe. This was exacerbated by the fact that much of the city is below sea level, with only a few levees separating it from the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the people of Holland, who have had centuries of experience in reclaiming land from the ocean, the residents of New Orleans were clearly and sadly unprepared for the failure of any of those levees -- particularly as the pump stations were obviously vulnerable to disablement due to flooding.
The full extent of the hurricane's ecological damage may never be known. But as people all over the world contribute to the ongoing relief efforts, one unfortunate repercussion may be unavoidable: The millions of gallons of sea water that flooded into the city, have become badly contaminated, after mixing with and decomposing the numberless human and animal victims of the disaster -- in addition to incalculable amounts of trash and unprocessed sewage. Officials are not yet certain as to whether the flood water contains toxic chemicals, but they have confirmed that it contains E. coli. Authorities are stating that there is no way to treat such a vast amount of polluted water. So what will be done with it? Unfortunately, it's going to get dumped straight back into the Gulf of Mexico. This is but one element in the overall environmental destruction resulting from Katrina.
Yet there is a silver lining to the tons of sea water stirred up and forced into New Orleans and its environs, regardless of how minor it may be thought relative to the loss of human life. In this case, that light at the end of the tunnel is the ultraviolet light emitted by varieties of sea life that have never before been seen and catalogued by oceanographers. These newly discovered forms of life include fish that produce their own light, as well as a previously unknown variety of squid that grows up to at least six feet in length. Because these ocean dwellers typically live more than 1800 feet below the surface of the Gulf, ocean researchers are delighted to have this opportunity to study these creatures -- truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, at least, the researchers may only hope.
As the oceanographers and other scientists learn more about the life forms with which we share this planet, it may give us time to think again about the load that we are putting on that planet by artificially enabling human settlements of otherwise uninhabitable areas, and the incalculable environmental impact of the human-borne technological hurricane.
The greatest environmental dangers from coal fires lie outside of the United States. China and India are but two countries trying to catch up with America's level of industrialization and thus power consumption. China, for instance, derives 75 percent of its energy supplies from coal, mining almost two billion tons of coal annually, which is more than one ton per Chinese citizen. The country possesses one of the richest anthracite deposits in the world -- about 3000 miles long and up to 125 feet deep at some points. Correspondingly, they have more and larger coal fires than any other country, according to Stefan Voigt, co-chair of the Sino-German Coal Fire Initiative, which maps the fires from space. China's underground coal fires are due to unprecedented energy demands, slipshod mining practices, regulatory irresponsibility, environmental neglect, and a pervasive attitude that unseen problems are not really problems. As is typical, government exacerbates the problem, with the usual bureaucratic lethargy and denial. The Chinese officially acknowledge 56 active coal fires, and yet thousands have been mapped using satellite and aircraft imagery. Stefan Voigt, a geographer at the German Aerospace Center near Munich, notes that, "We know there are thousands, but it is too hard to count."
So what are they doing about it? Since 1993, Chinese scientists have been working with Dutch and German researchers to map China's coal fires. But finding them is not enough; they must be extinguished. Generations of geologists and engineers have grappled with the issue, and have concluded that, in most cases, the only solution is complete excavation and smothering the fire with soil. But China and India lack the needed earth moving equipment, relying almost entirely on picks and shovels. Geologist Paul van Dijk, of the International Institute for Geo-information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) in the Netherlands, estimates that less than 10 percent of China's fires are being fought.
Matters are no better in India, which has the world's highest concentration of large coal mines, and increasing numbers of coal fires. The densely populated areas of Raniganj, Singareni, and Jharia have been reduced to huge wastelands, as a result of increasing surface temperatures, as well as ground water and soil contamination with toxic byproducts. As a result of advancing fires, buildings and rail lines are destroyed, and villages and the roads connecting them must be relocated repeatedly. A riverbank in Jharia collapsed in 1995, flooding water into underground mines, killing 78 people.
Rapidly catching up with India, Indonesia has logged and cleared for agriculture vast tracts of rain forest, which covered near-surface coal. Their preferred method of clearance: fire. This irresponsible practice has started an estimated 3,000 coal fires since 1982, and destroyed countless buildings. The resultant heavy smoke affects Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia -- blocking out sunlight, causing crop failure, and reducing visibility, leading to at least one oil-tanker collision. The smoke creates a choking haze of soot and carbon monoxide, as well as sulfur and nitrogen compounds, and is the primary suspect for the current Asian asthma epidemic. The coal fires also release arsenic, fluorine, and selenium, which studies indicate are slowly poisoning millions of people in China alone.
This is a massive ecological problem that will only get worse, because these fires will burn for hundreds if not thousands of years, pouring out tons of sulfur and other poisonous gases every year, contributing to global warming, cooking to death layers of earth, and igniting forest fires. For instance, not far from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, an old coal mine has burned for a hundred years. In the summer of 2002, it started a forest fire that wiped out 12,000 acres and 43 buildings. It cost $6.5 million to put out the fire... the forest fire, that is. The coal fire still burns.
On the other side of the planet, in Inner Mongolia, the Wuda coal field is one of China's largest fields, at almost 15 square miles. Sadly, it is burning, making it China's most destructive coal fire and one of the world's worst environmental disasters. China's underground fires burn 20 million to 30 million tons of coal annually, pumping tons of ash into the air. Each ton of ash results in almost a ton equivalent of carbon dioxide, and a third of a ton of methane (methane produces 21 times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions compared to carbon dioxide).
These coal fires pose an ecological and energy challenge that must be squarely addressed and resolved regardless of the obstacles. Moreover, with increasing coal mining around the globe, the situation will only get worse. The world's citizens must voice their concerns to those in positions of power to make far greater strides in the right direction. We can do our best to educate and help spread the word, because the fires are spreading just as fast, and this is a race we need to win.
(Sources: "Fire in the Hole", Kevin Krajick, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005. "Flaming Dragon", Mike Meyer, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005, page 58.)
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