Spontaneous combustion, when it occurs in coal, is a serious issue. In underground coal mines, it poses major safety concerns and active procedures are required to ensure that spontaneous combustion is safely managed. Similarly, spontaneous combustion must be managed in the transportation of coal over large distances, as occurs in shipping. In spoil piles from open cut coal mines, spontaneous combustion is both an environmental and a safety issue. The causes of spontaneous combustion in spoil piles and its control have been studied for a number of years, and broad guidelines for its mitigation have recently become available to the coal industry. The current paper describes the phenomenology of spoil pile heating and the challenges it may raise for subsequent rehabilitation and land use. The specific situation of spoil piles subject to spontaneous combustion, which were planned as the location of a landfill site for solid waste, is also briefly discussed.


References to spontaneous combustion in coal have occurred for at least three centuries. Glasser and Bradshaw (1990) refer to descriptions of the phenomenon in Britain dating from the 17th century while Schmidt (1945) describes significant scientific research beginning during the latter part of the 19th century. The major drivers during this period were concerns with miner safety and the threat to shipping. Fires within the confines of an underground coalmine or within a ship's hold always present serious safety concerns. In underground mines, this is further exacerbated, as methane gas from the coal seam may form explosive mixes when oxygen is present. In Australia, the Moura tragedy in 1994 in which 11 miners lost their lives was found to have been the result of a spontaneous combustion initiated gas explosion. Apart from underground mining and transportation, spontaneous combustion can also affect open cut coal mining.

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