Mining Deaths in Olympic Power Push

As China pushes its miners to produce more coal and meet power demand for the Olympics, a series of mining accidents has claimed dozens of lives.
By Michael Lelyveld
2008-08-07
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BOSTON--China's coal miners may be paying a high price for keeping the lights burning in Beijing during the Summer Olympics.Over the past two weeks, five mining accidents have caused at least 67 deaths.

The fatalities come as top government officials are urging more coal production to ease the worst power shortages since 2004, according to state media reports.

During a visit to the coal heartland of Shanxi Province on July 28, Vice Premier Li Keqiang called for increased output, saying he was "much concerned about ...  the supply of electricity for the Beijing Olympic Games," the official Xinhua news service reported.

But more electricity has also meant more accidents in a country that depends on coal for nearly 80 percent of its power.

"The coal supply crunch has mounted pressure on mine safety in Shanxi ... as local coal miners are forced to overproduce," the state-controlled China Daily warned on July 31.

Between July 21 and Aug. 1, a series of mining mishaps claimed 67 lives with fatal accidents reported in Henan, Hubei, Yunnan and Liaoning provinces, as well as southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, where a mine flood caused
36 deaths.

Surging demand

Robert Ebel, chairman of the energy security program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Radio Free Asia that China's miners have been pushed to meet surging power demand for the Olympics at a time when coal prices are high and stockpiles are low.

"Mines are overproducing because the price is attractive. They can make lots of money, but they're producing beyond their fixed capacity, and that leads to problems, that leads to accidents, that leads to deaths," Ebel said. Miners are paying "a very high price" in terms of safety, he said.

In the first half of this year, recorded accidents in China's coal mines killed an average of seven workers every day, according to a Radio Free Asia analysis of government and industry reports. That was an improvement over last year's death toll of 3,786 miners, China's State Administration of Workplace Safety (SAWS) said. The 2007 figures were also 20 percent lower than the previous year, according to SAWS.

But even with these improvements in official data, China's safety record is dismal.

China produced 1.2 billion tons of coal in the first half of the year--a little more than twice as much as the United States--but its fatalities were over 80 times higher, based on comparisons of data from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. More than three times as many miners have been killed in China so far this year as in all U.S. coal accidents since 1996.

Despite the human and environmental consequences of burning so much coal, China continues to demand more as its power supplies struggle to keep up with unrestrained growth.

Possible blackouts

Although coal output rose 14.8 percent in the first half of the year, coal stocks at China's power plants were down to just 11 days of supply, the State Electricity Regulatory Commission (SERC) warned last week. The country may face blackouts this year, SERC said in a report.

Mikkal Herberg, research director for energy security at the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, said that China has been pushing its miners because it has been unable to solve its problems in time for the Olympics.

"They've had seven years to prepare. You would think they would have stockpiled coal and built in a little extra generation capacity to meet this surge in demand during the Olympics," Herberg said. "But it's a function of how this system has been running flat out, chronically short all the time for the last seven years."

"Chinese energy demand overall has risen by 86 percent in the last six years alone. The system is simply ... running at crisis levels all the time," he said.

By burning more coal to meet power demand for the Olympics, China is also working against its efforts to cut air pollution for the events. "It's very circular," Herberg said.

But after years of planning to reduce the share of coal in the nation's energy supply, China is still driving its miners to produce record amounts every year, said Ebel.

"It's a coal-based economy. If they were to cut back, what would they replace the lost fuel with?" Ebel said. "They've got a real dilemma on their hands."

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