China has announced continuing progress in reducing coal mine fatalities, although doubts remain about death counts and cover-ups in one of the most dangerous industries in the world.
On March 10, the director of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) told a Beijing press conference that coal mine accidents claimed 931 lives last year, as the death toll dropped below 1,000 for the first time.
"The situation has been greatly improved," said the SAWS director, Yang Dongliang, according to Agence France-Presse.
Speaking on the sidelines of China's annual legislative sessions, Yang mixed praise for safety advances with a promise that the agency was determined to do more.
The most recent fatality figure represented an 86.7 percent decline from the toll of some 7,000 in 2002, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"The nation is still confronted with grave and complicated challenges in coal mine work safety, as the authorities aim to achieve a zero-death target," Yang said.
There seems little doubt that China has made major steps forward in lowering the casualty count in an industry that accounts for half the world's coal output.
In 1996-2000, deaths in coal mines averaged 7,619 annually, or over 20 per day, about eight times more than last year, as cited in previous official reports.
Dramatic cuts in reported deaths
Government efforts to tighten safety rules and close thousands of smaller, more dangerous mines have led to dramatic cuts in official death counts and fatality rates over the years.
In 1990, the ratio of deaths per million tons of coal production stood at 6.1, according to a 2004 study by Wang Shaoguang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. That rate was 24 times higher than that calculated from earlier SAWS data for last year.
Safety campaigns, gas monitoring, mine closures and consolidations have produced more rapid results in recent years, based on government reports.
In 2005, for example, China mined 2.1 billion tons of coal and recorded 5,986 deaths.
By that reckoning, the death toll has dropped 84 percent, while production has grown by 84 percent In the course of the past decade.
But the 2014 figures appear inconsistent with the official reports that accidental deaths declined 14.3 percent from a year earlier, when 1,049 miners were listed as killed or missing.
Based on that tally, deaths dropped 11.2 percent, or far less than the declines of 24 percent and 30 percent reported for 2013 and 2012.
The 2014 toll rises to 978 if the calculations follow SAWS figures for deaths per million metric tons of coal mined, based on National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reports that China produced 3.87 billion metric tons of coal last year.
It is unclear whether the statistical gaps are the result of revisions or reporting flaws, but earlier releases of partial figures may reflect concern that the reductions should have been larger at a time when coal production fell 2.5 percent from the year before.
By comparison, U.S. coal accidents claimed 16 lives last year, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. At that rate, China suffered 58 times more deaths to produce
four times as much coal.
Experts have noted a major difference between the U.S. and Chinese industries, in that U.S. mining operations are largely opencast, or above ground.
But that difference also highlights the high costs and continuing dangers for China's miners underground, despite progress in reducing risks over the decade.
The government seems to be focusing more intently on prevention of methane gas explosions and major accidents to reduce the fatality rate further.
Last month, the National Energy Administration (NEA) said in a statement that 266 people were killed in 47 coal mine gas accidents last year, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Feb. 12.
Methane gas blasts
The number of deaths from methane gas blasts was down 27.5 percent from 2013, the NEA said, without giving the total of number of fatalities from all accidents in coal mines.
"More effort must be made in 2015 to avoid major accidents (those with over 30 deaths), reduce those that kill more than 10 and achieve a year-on-year reduction of casualties by over 10 percent," the NEA said.
Tim Wright, an expert on China coal mine safety and professor emeritus of Chinese studies at Britain's University of Sheffield, said official classifications of "serious" accidents (10 or more deaths) and "exceptionally serious" accidents (30 or more deaths) may help the government to portray progress in a more favorable light.
"They claim to have had no exceptionally serious coal mine accidents for 21 months. No doubt, they use whichever figure is most favorable to them, but there is no doubt that a high priority was to reduce the very large number of disasters in the mid-2000s," said Wright.
"As these mostly resulted from gas explosions, so the focus on controlling gas and reducing gas explosions has been an important part of policy," he said.
The thresholds for defining major accidents may have their drawbacks, as some mine operators try to sidestep the rules that require higher penalties or suspensions for each category of fatalities.
In a 2006 article for the Jamestown Foundation research and analysis organization in Washington, China energy expert Jianjun Tu argued that official reports understate the real totals, "as mine owners routinely falsify death counts in order to avoid mine closures or fines."
The highest accident category of 30 or more deaths automatically triggers an investigation led by the State Council, or government cabinet, the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin said.
In what may be the worst recent case involving the accident definitions in 2013, a State Council probe found that mine operators in northeastern Jilin province understated the death toll from a gas explosion to avoid falling into the 30-or-more category.
The Babao Coal Mine Co. in Baishan City reported 28 deaths and 13 injuries from the accident, although the real death toll reached 36, Xinhua reported at the time.
Investigators then found that the mine had concealed six additional deaths in five other accidents during 2012. Seventeen more miners died in another explosion in 2013, when the mine ignored a government-ordered shutdown, Xinhua said.
In January 2014, a district court sentenced 14 managers and officials in the case to jail terms ranging from 10 months to five years.
Despite government efforts and penalties, cases of concealment continued in 2014.
Cover ups common
In July, mine owners in northeast Heilongjiang province covered up an accident for more than two weeks after seven workers died in a collapse at the Xingcheng Coal Mine in Hegang City, according to a Xinhua report.
The mine was found to be operating illegally.
"The mine management secretly cremated the bodies and compensated the families," Xinhua said.
The State Council's Work Safety Commission also determined that the Mingshan Coal Mine in southeastern Jiangxi province covered up a gas explosion that killed three in July, claiming instead that two workers had died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
In September, prosecutors also began investigating a mine fire that killed 24 workers at an illegal operation in Lushan County of central Henan province that was allegedly covered up since 2009.
Officials of the county's Coal Industry Bureau and the Bureau of Land and Resources have been under investigation, Xinhua said.
While no accidents reached the threshold of 30 or more deaths last year, several claimed over 20 lives.
The worst was an explosion at the Dongfang coal mine in Huainan City of eastern Anhui province in August that killed 27. Sixteen people have been indicted for illegal mining operations and storage of explosives, according to state media reports.