Coal mine fires remind us of coal’s threat to our environment, climate and health

Over two weeks ago the Hazelwood and Yallourn open cut coal mines began burning and exposing thousands of people in the town of Morwell in Gippsland, Victoria to an onslaught of ash and smoke.  The EPA has been recording very poor air quality in the region and is ramping up air pollution monitoring. People in Morwell are complaining of respiratory and other health symptoms, face masks have been widely distributed, health advice has been issued and people advised to leave if they able.

The end point of the fire is unknown –it may continue for another two weeks or much longer. The same mine has caught fire before, but not for the same duration.

So what do we know about coal fires? Coal fires can start in a number of ways- from deliberate lighting, spontaneous combustion, bush fires and lightning strikes. They are more common than many people would anticipate, are widespread globally, and can burn for years, decades or even (rarely) millennia.
They can present significant environmental, human health and climate risks. Ground subsidence and ecosystem destruction can occur, with gases and fly ash polluting air, water and soil., Well-known examples are the Jharia coal field in India, the largest coalmine fire complex in the world, and the coal fire that caused depopulation of the town of Centralia in Pennsylvania.

Coal combustion releases carbon dioxide, water vapour and a cocktail of noxious pollutants, including carbon monoxide, methane, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and potentially toxic trace elements such as arsenic and mercury. The exact composition of the coal varies with location.

It is estimated that coal fires burning across China account for 2–3% of the annual world emission of atmospheric CO2 from burning fossil fuels – equivalent to the CO2 emitted per annum from all vehicles in the United States.

What is not clear is exactly how long people need to be exposed to coal fires before their health is affected – there is very little direct research on this subject. However we have a lot of other information to help us. Where coal fires have burned for long periods, increases in human illness, such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, have been reported. Moreover there is an extensive literature on many of the pollutants associated with coal fires, from studies of the health impacts of bushfire smoke., and urban air pollution – both traffic and other fossil fuel combustion

One of the pollutants of greatest concern is inhalable particulate matter, which can aggravate respiratory and cardiac disease and increase the risk of premature death. Fine particles (PM2.5) are of particular concern as they can penetrate more deeply into the lungs, and even the bloodstream People with heart or lung diseases, children and older adults are the most likely to be affected by particle pollution exposure.

“There is only an advisory reporting standard for PM2.5 in Australia , which is 25 micrograms per cubic metre daily (µg/m3) daily and 8µg/m3 yearly. Daily readings of fine particles around Morwell recently have been recorded up to 563µg/m3., readings which might be expected in places like New Delhi or Beijing.

A review of a number of air pollution studies has estimated that there is an increase in mortality for an exposed population of 6% for every increase of 10µg/m3 in fine particle levels (annual mean) in ambient air”

According to the American Heart Association ,“Exposure to PM2.5  over a few hours to weeks can trigger cardiovascular disease–related mortality and nonfatal events; longer-term exposure (eg, a few years) increases the risk for cardiovascular mortality to an even greater extent than exposures over a few days and reduces life expectancy within more highly exposed segments of the population by several months to a few years.” Fine particle exposure can also increase respiratory symptoms, decrease lung function and worsen asthma and chronic lung disease.

Coal is considered a cheap fuel, which governments are rushing to exploit. However there are hidden costs or “externalities” of damage to the environment, climate and human health associated with coal mining, transport and processing. When these are included coal is far more expensive.;jsessionid=661228ED444FCC36513965676DD54044.d04t04?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

Health advocacy groups such as Doctors for the Environment Australia have been warning for some time about the dangers to communities are exposed to from low level chronic pollution associated with mining and burning coal

The people of the Latrobe valley are already subject to considerable pollution from the coal energy generation. For example, 140 million kg/yr of sulphur dioxide is emitted by electricity generators in Victoria, and 100 million kg of this is emitted in the Latrobe Valley.

Government scientists have suggested at least part of the increase in mercury levels in fish in the Gippsland Lakes stems from local coal fired power generation. Victoria’s high greenhouse gas emissions result primarily from reliance on brown coal for electricity production

Coal-fired power stations in Australia emit around 200 million tonnes CO2 per year. While Australia’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions represent 1.5% of the global total, our coal exports alone contribute at least another 3.3% of global emissions.

So Australia’s coal contributes to climate change and its global health impacts. This in turn threatens the health of all Australians. Changes to our climate will subject Australians to more extreme weather, including hotter, longer and more frequent heat waves, and increased risk of drought, fire, and flood. Such events further impact upon our health and stretch our health services.

Coal fires and their damaging impact on health, the environment and climate are another externality of coal mining, which is not factored into our decision to continue pursuing this energy source when there are much safer, cleaner viable alternatives. Surely residents of the Latrobe Valley have got it right when they envisage a future without coal.

Dr Marion Carey
Adjunct Assoc Prof (Research), Monash University
27 February 2014

An extract of this article was published in the Conversation 28.02.2014 and is available at

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