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Burning coal deposits pollute lives in India

Under Jharia’s soil lies one of the largest coal deposits in India. But for the people who live above an inferno, Jharia is a condemned place.

Ahead of the global climate talks in December 2009, nine photographers from the photo agency NOOR photographed climate stories from around the world. Their goal: to document some of the causes and consequences, from deforestation to changing sea levels, as well as the people whose lives and jobs are part of the carbon culture.

Our carbon culture includes a reliance on coal that can be dangerous but also rewarding. Jharia, India, is a testament to both. The area supplies the country with most of its coal but also has dozens of underground fires burning in mines and coal seams. In this photo, smoke from one underground fire wafts from a hillside in the background. Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR
While Jharia is remote, its history of coal fires is shared by areas around the world where coal is mined. In the United States, hundreds of coal fires burn annually. Most are in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Many coal fires occur naturally; others happen due to mining activity. Both types can take decades to extinguish, all the while emitting carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases tied to global warming, as well as toxic mercury.

The fires cause land to subside, swallowing buildings and releasing poisonous gases that contaminate air, water and land. Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR
Truck drivers wait their turn to pick up coal in Jharia. Coal worth $12 billion is said to lie under an area covering 110 square miles, but only a small portion is mined due to the danger of underground fires and people living atop coal seams.

While gaps in climate science exist, leading some to question the degree of mankind’s impact as well as whether anything should be done, most governments as well as the science academies of the U.S. and other industrial nations agree that mankind is a significant factor and that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced. Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR
Women make off with coal taken illegally from an open-pit mine in Jharia. The region has a population of several hundred thousand. In 2006, the regional government announced plans to move residents out due to the danger of mine fires, but that has yet to happen. Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR
Sulfurous smoke rises from fissures around the edge of a vast open-pit mine in Jharia. Several dozen people have died in recent years when the fires caused areas to collapse.

"For the impoverished residents of Jharia, stealing coal to sell and picking through collapsed buildings for salvageable material is a dangerous way of life," says photographer Philip Blenkinsop. "And now, with the earth literally collapsing beneath their feet, they face an ecological disaster." Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR
Villagers steal coal from a loading area in Jharia. Some 80,000 families are supposed to be resettled in an area 15 miles away, but most are reluctant, citing the lack of jobs in the new location.

For more information on this project go to Consequences by NOOR Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR
A man takes his evening bath on the edge of an open-pit mine in Jharia. The region's residents are destitute, with no means of sustenance other than the coal fields. Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR
Children play on a makeshift jungle gym on the edge of a vast coal mine in Jharia. Some 7,000 families are said to live in the most dangerous areas around mine fires.

Share your thoughts about these slideshows and climate change. Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR
This coal mine site in Jharia is one of dozens in the area. When coal mine fires burn, they emit the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane as well as mercury.

"The contribution of coal fires to the global pool of atmospheric CO2 is little known but potentially significant," the U.S. Geological Survey says. "For China, the world’s largest coal producer, it is estimated that anywhere between 10 million and 200 million metric tons of coal reserves (about 0.5 to 10 percent of production) is consumed annually by coal fires or made inaccessible owing to fires." Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR
Piles of coal burn in this neighborhood of Jharia. Long-term inhalation of the fumes can promote asthma and chronic bronchitis as well as lung and skin cancer.

For more information on this project go to Consequences by NOOR Philip Blenkinsop / Consequences by NOOR