China Closes Unsafe Coal Mines

2006-04-21
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Dec. 8, 2005: Rescuers rush to locate miners trapped in the Liuguantun mine in Hebei province. Photo: AFP

China has ordered a shutdown of all small coal mines by the end of next year, citing deadly accidents and illegal investment by local officials. But experts say the order may be ineffective because many mines have reopened after similar closures in the past.

On April 4, the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety announced the order to close all small coal mines by the end of 2007. The move, according to a report by China’s official Xinhua news agency, is aimed at reducing accidents and encouraging mergers with larger mining companies with better safety programs.

Power shortages are widespread

William Chandler, president of Transition Energy, a clean-energy investment firm that operates in the United States and China, said that China has “the most dangerous coal industry in the world.”

“Thousands of miners get killed each year, and so the government is grappling with measures to try to reduce that rate of death and injury.”

However, China is also experiencing “widespread shortages of electricity, which is primarily generated by coal,” Chandler said.

Thousands of miners get killed each year, and so the government is grappling with measures to try to reduce that rate of death and injury.

And though Beijing claimed in 2001 that it had shut down 50,000 small mines and halted operations at 250,000 others, “many of those small mines, which were supposedly closed, managed to get their coal onto the market anyway.”

“So we’re likely to repeat that experience,” he added.

Miners need alternatives

Chandler noted that small mines do not always close when they merge with larger companies.

He also suggested that instead of closing mines, China might consider a “direct regulation of safety practices, such as better roof-bolting to avoid collapses and ventilation of methane to prevent explosions from trapped gas.”

Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that China’s central government has found it easier to order shutdowns than to administer safety rules.

Economy also said that local governments will face a major challenge because, if mines are closed, they will have to find employment for workers who lose their jobs.

“If there’s no plan for them when these [mines] are closed down, it’s similar to the loggers,” Economy said. “You can put a ban on logging, but if you don’t provide [loggers] with alternative sources of employment, they’re going to go back to what they know best.”

Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.

Original reporting in Chinese

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