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fossil fuel disasters

a briefing document

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Fossil fuel disasters, together with Fossil fuels are a dirty business and There she blows! striking oil, focus on the results of using fossil fuels for power consumption.
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      serious accident in us coal mine - 2 miners missing
      West Virginia explosion traps 13 coal miners
      blasting for coal
      in China
      65 trapped in Mexico
    carbon capture and storage - filthy coal is a cheaper power source, and far nastier
    black lung disease
      what is black lung disease?
      sickness and death from coal worker’s pneumoconiosis
    burning solid fuels at home
    radiation from coal
  oil storage
      the prestige disaster - heavy fuel oil strewn at sea
      oilpipe rupture - again
    pollution and asthma


The track record for fossil fuel production is far worse than that of other fuel production, in particular nuclear fuel. Fossil fuels are not clean or safe in their extraction, transport, storage and waste generation. This document lists some of the disasters that have occurred recently at various stages of creating fossil fuel-based energy. Fossil fuels are, of course, strongly implicated in global warming concerns. Also compare with much lower evidence of serious disasters linked to the nuclear generation industry.

While not discussed in this document, keep in mind that the steadily dwindling of fossil fuel resources is also a driving factor behind inter-state friction and the vast costs of associated military actions.


in the United States of America:

serious accident in us coal mine - 2 miners missing [January 2006]

“Doug Conaway, the director of the state's Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said that on Thursday just before 6 p.m., a monitor picked up a reading of carbon monoxide and a directive was issued for the crew to get out. This was about 10,000 feet into the mine and about 900 feet underground.

“As they started toward the outside they were all together and encountered light smoke," said Mr. Conaway. At that point, the crew donned their personal rescue gear, he said.

“The smoke became very heavy at that point in time," he said. "For some reason the other two individuals got separated from the other 10." ”

West Virginia explosion traps 13 coal miners [December 2005]

“CHARLESTON, West Virginia (Reuters) - An early morning explosion at a West Virginia coal mine trapped 13 miners more than a mile (1.6 km) underground on Monday and rescuers struggled to reach them.”

blasting for coal

“We are certain that Montana is going to put its gasification plants on the back burner and even though Tom Freidman says "Montana has one-third of all the coal deposits in America - 8 percent of all the coal in the world. Montana’s coal is roughly equivalent to 240 billion barrels of oil. "That’s enough to replace all our imported oil for 60 years." they will leave it in the ground out of equal concern for their own backyards.”

Two useful, short video films showing something of the destruction in the Appalachians, and in West Virginia.

in China:

“Nov. 27, 2005: Coal dust catches fire at the Dongfeng Coal Mine in Qitaihe, a city in Heilongjiang province, killing at least 134 miners.”

China has many coal-mining accidents. Here another two of the larger ones:

“-Feb. 15, 2005: An explosion in Sunjiawan coal mine in Liaoning province kills 214 miners.

“-Nov. 28, 2004: An explosion in the state-run Chenjiashan Coal Mine in the northwestern province of Shaanxi kills 166 miners.”

The above linked article has details of more Chinese mining accidents.

In China alone, ten to twenty thousand probably die directly in coal-mining each year.

“Official statistics show more than 7,200 coal miners were killed in gas explosions, floods, cave-ins and other accidents last year, making China's mines by far the world's deadliest. But the real figure could be around 20,000, labour rights groups say, as many deaths are covered up or fail to enter the official statistics for various reasons.”

Although only accidents in the USA and China are thus far listed, many other countries have coal-mining industries which are disaster centres.

65 trapped in Mexico [21.02.2006]

“Shovel load by shovel load, rescuers were yesterday inching towards 65 miners trapped inside a coalmine in northern Mexico. As hope of finding their loved ones alive faded, relatives waiting for news outside were left praying for divine intervention.

“The men were trapped early on Sunday after an underground explosion, apparently caused by a build-up of gas, led to the collapse of several shafts. Around a dozen miners working near the surface managed to get out of the mine. Seven were taken to hospital with burns and broken bones.” [Quoted from guardian.co.uk]

Note that explosions can also be caused by the very fine coal dust igniting/exploding.

carbon capture and storage - filthy coal is a cheaper power source, and far nastier

“CCS [carbon capture and storage] is untested for good reason. The technology will add about US$1 billion to the capital cost of a power plant, not including efficiency losses which will demand a quarter more coal burn just to maintain output, and extra water for steam to make up the lost power.”

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black lung disease

Data regarding the numbers of coal-workers suffering from this industrial disease are very hard to find, most countries preferring to keep quiet about their large mortality. China, for instance, only started releasing air pollution data in 1998. abelard.org has found fairly reasonable data for the USA, who are prepared to publish statistics. For most other countries, it has been a matter of gleaning bits of data from here and there.

This section is primarily concerned with mining workers. However, that is a small proportion of those damaged by fossil fuel filth. Here is a claim we have found concerning the general population:

“Worldwide, particulate and SO2 pollution cause at least 500,000 premature deaths, 4 to 5 million new cases of bronchitis, and millions of other respiratory illnesses per year.” [Quoted from wvhighland.org]

what is black lung disease?

Black lung disease is the result of the lungs being coated with coal dust as miners work at the coal-face hacking out the coal, or elsewhere shifting the lumps of coal or mining waste.(When hit for any reason, coal easily disintegrates into tiny, insoluble particles of coal dust and other components such as silica.) Because coal-mining has been, and in some countries still is, a widespread industrial activity, there are large numbers of black lung disease sufferers. This disease is also called coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (CWP).

The name, black lung, comes from the distinctive blue-black marbling of the lung from the coal dust accumulation. This disease occurs mostly in those who mine hard coal (anthracite), but also occurs among those mining soft coals and graphite. After about ten to twenty years of exposure, symptoms to set in and it may be aggravated by silica (causing silicosis) mixed with the coal.

“CWP, a progressive (with continued exposure) and incurable condition, [that] begins with the inhalation of small coal dust particles. [This causes] a localized inflammation, usually in the upper part of the lungs, followed by the formation of fibrous scars. Although asymptomatic in the early stages, as CWP advances, scarred areas in the lungs increase and coalesce. With massive fibrosis, or scarring, pulmonary function decreases, sometimes fatally. Chest X rays are the only way to confirm CWP, and there is no cure other than a lung transplant.” [Quoted from Environmental Health Perspectives]

Black lung disease includes symptoms of pneumoconiosis, silicosis, asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These symptoms are generally lumped under the label chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD.

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sickness and death from coal worker’s pneumoconiosis

Historically, black lung disease (or CWP) has caused many hundreds of thousands of deaths throughout the world. These deaths were to both the coal miners and to the general population. There was a generalised burning of coal for heating and for industry, which resulted in sometimes lethal “coal smogs” in larger towns. It is only since various clean air acts were passed that deaths in the general population have decreased in modern industrial countries. Industrial victims have reduced considerably since stricter working regulations have been introduced. However, despite the reduction in new industrial deaths, there is still a steady mortality from previous coal-miners, as black lung disease can take as long as fifteen to twenty years to kill.

Houses of Parliament, London, Sun Breaking Through the Fog  by Claude Monet, 1904. Source: Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Houses of Parliament, London, Sun Breaking Through the Fog
by Claude Monet, 1904. Source: Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Doubtless, these diseases go back hundreds of years; there are reports concerning air pollution in south-east England in the 17th/18th centuries, relating to charcoal-burning, low visibility and the impossibility of putting clothes out to dry due to the filth in the air. I would expect there to be large effects in backward countries with open fires and poorly ventilated living spaces.

“coal smog”/ “killer fog” deaths in towns
London, UK 1880 2,200
London, UK 1952 4,000
Donora, Pennsylvania, USA 1948 50
Bejing, China; Delhi, India each, currently up to 4,000 p.a.

industrial black lung disease (CWP)
country current prevalence deaths number of known cases rate of new cases
China 440,000

(1950s - 2000s)

- 10,000 p.a.
(previously 2,500 p.a.)
[various sources]
4.5% of coal workers 14,156
(1979 - 1996)
19,400 (recognised in 1974) 4000 p.a.
(of whom 1,500 are former coal miners)

CWP: work-related deaths and disease in the USA
year deaths percentage of coal workers with CWP
1972 3,000  
1992 1,766  
1970-1973   11%
1987-1991   3.6%
[Source: Environmental Health Perspectives]

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burning solid fuels at home

According to the World Health Organisation:

“Half the world's population burns wood, coal, dung and other solid fuels to cook food and heat their homes, exposing them to dangerous smoke that kills 1.5 million people a year, the UN health agency said on Thursday [4th May 2006].”

“ Day in day out, and for hours at a time, women and their small children breathe in amounts of smoke equivalent to consuming two packs of cigarettes per day.”

From Hazards of high-level radioactive waste — the great myth

“Finally there is uranium, thorium, and radium, radioactive wastes released from coal burning that serve as a source of radon gas. The impact of this radioactive radon gas from coal burning on the public's health far exceeds the effects of all the radioactive waste released from nuclear plants.”

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radiation from coal

“Coal ash is composed primarily of oxides of silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, magnesium, titanium, sodium, potassium, arsenic, mercury, and sulfur plus small quantities of uranium and thorium.”

“Today 52% of the capacity for generating electricity in the United States is fueled by coal, compared with 14.8% for nuclear energy. Although there are economic justifications for this preference, it is surprising for two reasons. First, coal combustion produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are suspected to cause climatic warming, and it is a source of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, which are harmful to human health and may be largely responsible for acid rain. Second, although not as well known, releases from coal combustion contain naturally occurring radioactive materials--mainly, uranium and thorium.”

“Thus, by combining U.S. coal combustion from 1937 (440 million tons) through 1987 (661 million tons) with an estimated total in the year 2040 (2516 million tons), the total expected U.S. radioactivity release to the environment by 2040 can be determined. That total comes from the expected combustion of 111,716 million tons of coal with the release of 477,027,320 millicuries in the United States. Global releases of radioactivity from the predicted combustion of 637,409 million tons of coal would be 2,721,736,430 millicuries.”

Of course, the extremely high standards of the nuclear industry result in a regimen of care and containment, whereas the coal industry chucks their muck willy-nilly into the air and across the landscape.

comparing coal and nuclear
“For comparison, according to NCRP Reports No. 92 and No. 95, population exposure from operation of 1000-MWe nuclear and coal-fired power plants amounts to 490 person-rem/year for coal plants and 4.8 person-rem/year for nuclear plants. Thus, the population effective dose equivalent from coal plants is 100 times that from nuclear plants. For the complete nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to reactor operation to waste disposal, the radiation dose is cited as 136 person-rem/year; the equivalent dose for coal use, from mining to power plant operation to waste disposal, is not listed in this report and is probably unknown.”

heavy metals in coal
“During combustion, the volume of coal is reduced by over 85%, which increases the concentration of the metals originally in the coal. Although significant quantities of ash are retained by precipitators, heavy metals such as uranium tend to concentrate on the tiny glass spheres that make up the bulk of fly ash. This uranium is released to the atmosphere with the escaping fly ash, at about 1.0% of the original amount, according to NCRP data. The retained ash is enriched in uranium several times over the original uranium concentration in the coal because the uranium, and thorium, content is not decreased as the volume of coal is reduced.”

mining coal waste
“[...] radioactive elements released in coal ash and exhaust produced by coal combustion contain fissionable fuels and much larger quantities of fertile materials that can be bred into fuels by absorption of neutrons, including those generated in the air by bombardment of oxygen, nitrogen, and other nuclei with cosmic rays; such fissionable and fertile materials can be recovered from coal ash using known technologies. These nuclear materials have growing value to private concerns and governments that may want to market them for fueling nuclear power plants.”

“For the 100 years following 1937, U.S. and world use of coal as a heat source for electric power generation will result in the distribution of a variety of radioactive elements into the environment. This prospect raises several questions about the risks and benefits of coal combustion, the leading source of electricity production.”

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oil storage

A fuel depot of twenty-two storage tanks blows up in crowded south-east England, provoking the largest oil fire in Europe during peacetime. [December 2005]

Smoke from oil depot fire at Hemel Hempstead, England. Image courtesy of NASA.
Smoke from oil depot fire at Hemel Hempstead, England. Image courtesy of NASA

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oil transport

the prestige disaster - heavy fuel oil strewn at sea [November 2002]

“The oil tanker “Prestige foundered off Cape Finisterre in 2002, leaking 80,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on to Spanish beaches. It was his [the 76-year-old master, Captain Apostolos Mangouras] first SOS in 32 years and in a force 10 gale with 25-foot waves, he tried to rescue his ship after being refused safe haven in a Spanish port. Desperate for a scapegoat, the Spanish authorities threw him in jail for three months and then kept him under house arrest for a year pending trial. Numerous investigations blamed the pollution incident on the decision by Spanish authorities to refuse the Prestige access to a port.”

This ecological and social disaster was documented extensively from its beginnings by abelard.org. This is the original news item:
Another potential ecological oil mess (Nov. 2002).

abelard.org followed the pricipal events in this story over 18 or so months. The latest story was The Spanish Emperor has no clothes—facing up to reality. From this linked item, readers can move back through other related articles on that page and to other pages with earlier details, including photographs.

Major oil spills

oil pipeline rupture - again

“A ruptured gasoline pipeline burst into flames Tuesday [26.12.2006] as scavengers collected the fuel in Nigeria's largest city, killing at least 200 people. The death toll was expected to rise as rescue workers tried to document more charred corpses.

“Scores of bodies could be seen jumbled and fused together in the raging flames at the blast site. Intense heat kept rescue workers back as smoke billowed over the heavily populated Abule Egba neighborhood in Lagos.”

“ In May, more than 150 people died in a similar explosion in Lagos.”

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oil pollution and asthma

new rules planned in the USA for off-road diesel emissions

“Studies show that the new rules could prevent about 8,500 premature deaths a year and reduce asthma and other respiratory ailments linked with human exposure to air particles.”

“The new rules would require fuel refiners to produce diesel with a sulfur content of just 15 parts per million (ppm), down from about 3,000 ppm currently, starting in 2008.”

new rules, part 2

“Diesel engines emit a mixture of gases and fine particles that contain some 40 chemicals, including benzene, butadiene, dioxin and mercury compounds.”

“... would prevent more than 360,000 asthma attacks ... annually.”

BP’s low sulphur diesel

country sulphur content in diesel permitted legislation
Australia 500ppm in force, 1 Jan 2003
USA 15 ppm proposed for 2008

thousands of deaths a year caused by diesel fuel

“Researchers have identified tiny soot particles from diesel exhausts - 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair - as the chief culprits in 9,000 fatal heart attacks in the UK annually.”

“Dr David Newby, the lead cardiologist on the project, said: "Compared to other risk factors such as cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking, the role these particles play is less important, but on top of these other things it can be quite significant. The difference is that the whole population is exposed to them unlike these other factors that affect individuals. Air pollution affects everybody as they don't have a choice.”

Last year, diesel cars accounted for more than 35% of total sales compared with just 14% five years ago.”

marker at abelard.org

“Under the European Commission's EURO5 standards, it is hoped filters fitted to diesel engines will slash particulate emissions by 80%. If approved, the directive will come into force in 2008. Some car manufacturers are already offering optional filters for diesel engines.

“But experts and environment campaigners claim that under the European limits requiring particle emissions to be cut in weight, the lightweight PM2.5s could still be emitted in high numbers without breaching the regulations.

“The Edinburgh scientists now plan to test commercially available diesel engine filters for their ability to remove these dangerous particles.”

Note that “high numbers” is not a number.

in Iran [10.01.2007]

yet another fossil fuel industry disaster 11 - 10,000 dead in one city in one year

“About 10,000 people were killed last year by illnesses related to air pollution in Iran's smog-choked capital, the Etemad-e Melli newspaper on Tuesday quoted the deputy mayor as saying.”


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