The haunting inscription that marks the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno could well be true for Jharia, located in Jharkhand in India. For, the underground fires that have been raging in the coalfields of this town over several decades are now beginning to engulf its thickly inhabited areas as well.
Such is the intensity of the fires that even a mid-summer sun pales in the smoky haze that they generate. After dusk, the flames take on morbid hues. “Jharia resembles a cremation ground at night”.
The fires have consumed about 42 million tones of India’s best coking coal.
There appears to be no permanent solution in sight. The only opinion seems to be cut out trenches to disconnect fire seams which have been identified. But this would require a huge investment. But the extent to which has flared up in Jharia makes dousing it an uphill task-particularly when all the prevailing conditions further fan the fire.
The only solution which is now seen is the “shifting of town”. This means that the relocation would affect the nearly 0.3 million population of Jharia, approximately 0.1 million houses and other buildings and prospering economy.
A coal seam fire or mine fire is the underground smouldering of a coal deposit, often in a coal mine. Such fires have economic, social and ecological impacts. They are often started by lightning, grass, or forest fires, and are particularly insidious because they continue to smoulder underground after surface fires have been extinguished, sometimes for many years, before flaring up and restarting forest and brush fires nearby. They propagate in a creeping fashion along mine shafts and cracks in geologic structures.
Coal fires are a serious problem because hazards to health and safety and the environment include toxic fumes, reigniting grass, brush, or forest fires, and subsidence of surface infrastructure such as roads, pipelines, electric lines, bridge supports, buildings and homes. Whether started by humans or by natural causes, coal seam fires continue to burn for decades or even centuries until either the fuel source is exhausted; a permanent groundwater table is encountered; the depth of the burn becomes greater than the ground’s capacity to subside and vent; or humans intervene. Because they burn underground, coal seam fires are extremely difficult and costly to extinguish, and are unlikely to be suppressed by rainfall.