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Whether started by humans or by natural causes, coal seam fires continue to burn for decades or even centuries until either the fuel source is exhausted; a permanent groundwater table is encountered; the depth of the burn becomes greater than the ground’s capacity to subside and vent; or humans intervene. Because they burn underground, coal seam fires are extremely difficult and costly to extinguish, and are unlikely to be suppressed by rainfall. There are strong similarities between coal fires and peat fires.

The principle is that an ion exchange resin can remove potentially toxic metals (anionic resins), or chlorides and sulfates (cationic resins) from mine water. Once the contaminants are adsorbed, the exchange sites on resins must be regenerated, which typically requires expensive reagents and generates a brine that is difficult to dispose. A South African company claims to have developed a patented ion-exchange process that treats mine effluents (and AMD) economically, but such claims remain unsubstantiated at present.

Although a host of chemical processes contribute to acid mine drainage, pyrite oxidation is by far the greatest contributor. A general equation for this process is: 2FeS2(s) + 7O2(g) + 2H2O(l) ? 2Fe2+(aq) + 4SO42-(aq) + 4H+(aq) The oxidation of the sulfide to sulfate solubilizes the ferrous iron (iron(II)), which is subsequently oxidized to ferric iron (iron(III)): 4Fe2+(aq) + O2(g) + 4H+(aq) ? 4Fe3+(aq) + 2H2O(l) Either of these reactions can occur spontaneously or can be catalyzed by microorganisms that derive energy from the oxidation reaction.

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