Dousing the eternal flames
( 2003-09-17 09:34) (

Batizha, a 22-year-old Kazak girl, and her family are moving back to Liuhuanggou, back to ¡°Sulfur Valley¡±. The area, in Changji, Xinjiang, got the name from coalfield fires which ha raged on and off for more than a hundred years, spilling fumes and pollution for miles around. But efforts to put the fire out are nearly complete, and people are getting ready to return to the area.

Hills aflame

On August 31, Beijing Today went to Liuhuanggou, where coalfield fires had been burning in an area of 1,830 square kilometers. The Xinjiang Coalfield Fire Extinguishing Department had identified 18 main coalfields in the area which needed to be tackled. So far, fires have been put out at 14 of them, and the other four should be extinguished by October this year. Grass is even growing now, where not so long ago there was just ash and fire.

Miao Pu is the head technician of Xinjiang Coalfield Fire Extinguishing Department. He recalls when they first came to Liuhuanggou in April 2000, thick smoke could be seen in the surrounding mountains seven kilometers away.

At the burning coalfields, clouds of smoke and steam could be seen rushing out of cracks in the ground. ¡°At night, blue flames like ghost fire were dancing all over the mountains,¡± Miao added.At one of the sites Beijing Today visited, one year ago it was so hot that one could not approach it, according to Miao. He points to a flattened area where previously flames had licked out of cracks in the earth.

Every year, over 1.76 million tons of coal were lost in the fires, shrouding nearby Urumqi in clouds of poisonous fumes. It¡¯s reckoned that over 42 million tons coal have already been lost in Liuhuanggou. Another 32 million tons of coal in nearb coalfields were also at risk, one of the reasons behind the belated effort to tackle the flames. The trouble is, the ground remains permanently hot as a result of geological activity in the area, so extinguishing the fire has been no easy task. There are stilles in Xinjiang which have been burning on and off for decades. Local authorities hope to have them all extinguished by 2018.

Burning for 100 years

Local documents and historians place the blame on a general of the Qing Dynasty named Wan. In 1874 he started mining operations in Liuhuanggou with little concern for safety. Whenever a fire broke out in one coal mine, he would leave it burning and open another one. People came to call sites where the general had opened coal mines ¡°Wanjiayao¡± (Wan Coal Mines). ¡°The fires in Coalfield No.1 and 2 were caused by Wan¡¯s irresponsible coal mine opening,¡o says.

Miao says coalfield fires have in fact been a regular feature of the area for tens of thousands of years. ¡°During the Pleistocene Epoch, coal layers were exposed to the earth¡¯s surface due to crust movement. Fes broke out when the climate got warmer and whetstone accumulated,¡± he said.He says there is no record of any attempt to extinguish the fires before now.

Miao says the characteristics of coal in Xinjiang and their layer distribution are key reasons for the continual fires. ¡°The coal here can burn for months. Some coalfields have many coal layers which slant and are exposed to the air, so the oxygen keeps the fires burning.¡±Dry weather, long periods of direct sunshine and the lack of rain are other reasons for the fires.

However, the main concern of staff in the department these days is illegally opened coal mines. The area is rich in high quality coal and people try to mine it with little regard for safety. ¡°They do not observe any regulations relating to fire prevention. But people are encouraged by the chance to make a profit,¡± Miao says.Staff at the department say if there is no action taken to regulate illegally opened coal mines, coalfield fires could easily break out again.

Putting out the fire

Qi Dexiang, deputy director of the department, said 73 kilometers of water pipe lines had been set up to combat the any water can be used in extinguishing coalfield fires. ¡°We cannot use rai,¡± says Miao. ¡°It contains oxygen, so the fire is strengthened not weakened,¡± he sayAccording to Cai Zhongyong, general engineer of the department, there are usually five steps in extinguishing coalfield fires. First bulldozers are used to flatten the fire source, then water is poured on to reduce the temperature to around 70 centigrade.

Later a drilling machine is used, through which water and mud is injected. With the injection of water, the temperature of the fire source is reduced from more than a thousand centigrade to less than one hundred centigrade. The mud is used to fill the underground cracks and thus block the fire source from the air.

The last step is to cover the earth surface with soil, ensuring coal layers are completely separated from oxygen.

Uphill effort

Fighting the fire has been a huge task. Each of the water pipes, for instance, has a diameter of around 160 centimeters and they weigh 17 kilograms per meter. ¡°It takes six workers to carry one pipe. After working 14 hours a day, ll we want to do is sleep,¡± says Bai Wenyi, a member of the department. Around 70 percent of staff in the coalfield have rhinitis, a kind of nasal inflammation.

¡°In 2000 the smell of sulfur was so strong that after woring in the coalfield for several minutes, I felt sick and got dizzy,¡± Bai said. When pouring water onto the earth, Bai says the steam sometimes burns his feet and legs. The department has had to build roads to ferry the teams around the area, but this also has its hazards. The area is mountainous and the terrain is uncertain.

Liu Zhiyong recalls losing control of his bulldozer as it slipped for about 30 meters down to the end of a steep slope. ¡°The ground was moving due to the mud floating underground and the heavy bulldozer on the surface. The bulldozer was out of my control. It was like being in a boat on a river,¡± he saidBut most staff tell Beijing Today they are satisrking conditions. Many say they can¡¯t even smell anything strange any more.Workers say life in the coalfield is never boring.

¡°After one day¡¯s work, we can borrow books or watcTV in the evening,¡± Xu Xinhua says. ¡°If we want we can also take a walk at the foot of Liuhuanggou and buy some fruit there.¡He says staff like him, who are in their late 30s and have been extinguishing coalfield fires for years, are used to a simple life. ¡°Young men would not be interested in this kind of life though.¡±Not merely a local effort

According to Cai Zhongyong, general engineer of the Xinjiang Coalfield Fire Extinguishing Department, the project in Liuhuanggou has been greatly assisted by Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Technische Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GZT), a German state-backed company.

¡°They gave us equipment and the benefit of their expeience free of charge, even though it was worth several million euros,¡± he said. Heino Vest, a German expert on coalfield fires, said at a conference at the site last month that compared with three years ago when he first visited Liuhuanggou, the differences he sees are ¡°incredible.?¡°We invited experts like Herr Vest to Liuhuanggou to assess the cooperation between us and the Chinese side,¡± said Joerg Moczadlo Senior Advisor to the oject.

GZT helped in detecting the depth beneath the ground of the source of the fires, said Cai. ¡°We have also established a temperature measuring system to make sure the fires have been extinguished,¡± he added.¡°Butwe hope to have further cooperation with the German government so we can study coalfield fires,¡± Cai says. ¡°This will help us control them and speed up the process of extinguishing them, not only for the one in Liuhuanou but the other 34 fires that are still burning in Xinjiang,¡± he added.Long-term project

Hou Xuecheng says it is too early to claim success in putting out the fire in Liuhuanggou. ¡°There are a variety of standards in deciding whether a coalfield fire has been extinguished or nerature of the fire source being below 70 centirade,¡± he said.

¡°We have confidence in our efforts, but we need to be cautious as geological movement is unpredictable.¡Hou and his 300 colleagues have been concentrating on the fire in Liuhuanggou for three and a half years but there¡¯s plenty left to do in the region. Xinjiang still has 34 semi-permanent coalfield fires, but officials hope to have them all extinguished by 2018.The remaining 34 coalfield fires in Xinjiang cover a total area of more than 8,000 square kilometers.

Besides the terrible pollution caused every year, over three billion tons of coal have been lost in these fires. Every year, 10 million tons of coal in Xinjiang is lost in fires, resulting in an annual economic loss of 1 billion yuan. ¡°We don¡¯t intend to shut down all coal mining. We want to maximize these resources,¡± says Hou. Mining will soon resume at Xiaolongkou, one of the firfive coalfields to have its fire put out.

For fires in two other big coalfields, one in Baicheng and the other in Toksun, to be carried out next year, ¡°a coal mine is also to be built in Baicheng an an electricity factory will be built in Toksun once the fires there are put out,¡± he said. ¡°There are also coalfield fires in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia,¡± Hou said. In China, the total amount of coal burned in coalfid fires is 30 million tons a year, resulting in economic losses of around 4 billion yuan a year.

¡°We hope our methods in extinguishing coalfield fires can be useful in putting out fires in other provinces,¡± Hou added.So not only Xinjiang but other parts of the country will be able to see the blue sky and the white clouds and smell the clean air again