China Safety Rules Uneven

China plans tougher safety inspections for milk producers than for coal mines.
By Michael Lelyveld
2008-10-14
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BOSTON--China's government has promised round-the-clock dairy inspections following its toxic milk scandal, but a crackdown on unsafe coal mines appears less stringent despite a far greater number of deaths, analysts say.

On Oct. 5, food safety officials announced they were sending over 5,000 inspectors to conduct 24-hour monitoring of dairy factories, state media reported.

Inspection teams "had covered all dairy producers across the country and would be present through the whole production process," said Wang Yong, director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ), the official Xinhua news agency said.

The move came three weeks after the industrial chemical melamine was found in infant formula made by the Sanlu Group. Government investigators say the plastic-making compound was used to make diluted milk pass protein tests.

So far, the Ministry of Health has blamed the contamination for four deaths and over 53,000 cases of kidney problems in children. The milk scare has sparked recalls and import bans of Chinese food products in countries around the world.

President Hu Jintao has criticized the government's performance in ensuring safety both in food production and in a series of recent mining accidents that have claimed hundreds of lives.

"Some officials have ignored public opinion and turned a blind eye to people's hardships, and even major issues that concern the lives of the masses of people," Hu told government ministers on Sept. 19. "We must learn a painful lesson from the recent accidents."

Campaign stops short

Yet, a new government safety campaign for the coal industry stops short of the comprehensive measures for dairies, although coal accidents killed 3,786 miners last year, an average of over 10 workers per day, according to official figures.

On Oct. 3, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) announced a three-month program for coal mines to prevent accidents, the official China Daily reported.

Under the campaign, SAWS urged all mines to conduct "self checks" during the first month before government inspectors arrive in November. "All unlicensed mines and those that violate production safety regulations will be closed," the report said.

SAWS did not suggest that anything like the round-the-clock inspections for dairies would be ordered for mines, despite recent evidence that unsafe operations ignore the rules.

On Sept. 21, a mine explosion in central Henan province killed 37 workers after production was carried on illegally at night, Xinhua reported on Oct. 6. The mine operated by Zhengzhou Guangxian Industrial and Trade Co. was officially listed as "under renovation" and had been ordered to suspend production six days before the blast.

In another recent case, owners and local governments in Hebei province have been accused of covering up an accident that killed over 30 workers at an unlicensed coal mine in July, China Daily reported. Acting Governor Hu Chunhua said families were paid to "keep them quiet," while bodies of the victims "were hidden in surrounding areas."

In interviews with Radio Free Asia, energy experts said that stopping the deaths in illegal mines would require massive numbers of inspectors, but without them, there may be little chance of improvement.

"How many mines do they have in the country? Thousands. So, how many inspectors are you going to need to put in the mines, legal and illegal?" said Robert Ebel, chairman of the energy security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

'Closed' mines reopen

According to SAWS, China has some 16,000 coal mines, 90 percent of which are small operations, but the official count has long been in doubt. The government claims to have closed over 10,000 small mines over the past three years.

"We've seen all this happen before," said Ebel. "An inspector comes in and says you've got to shut it down because your safety is horrible. So, they shut it down, he leaves and then they reopen."

The pressure for jobs and energy remains intense in a country that produces over 2.5 billion tons of coal per year, Ebel said. China had as many as 500,000 coal mines in 2001, according to past Xinhua reports.

But Ebel said the government's tougher reaction to the dairy crisis also reflects the damage to its international standing.

"That carries an impact outside China, but the loss of miners in China really stays inside China," he said. "The milk issue has become an international problem, and China's government does not like that."

Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland's University of Dundee, said the difference in regulatory responses to risks in the two industries also reflects public expectations.

"Coal mining anywhere in the world, but particularly in a place like China, is accepted as being very dangerous," he said. "Going down to the supermarket and buying powdered milk for your baby is not expected to be dangerous."

But Andrews-Speed also said the government's latest crackdown on unsafe coal mines sounds like a repetition of campaigns that have failed in the past.

"We hear this every two years -- all unlicensed mines must be closed," he said. "It's telling us that the regulatory system is not working in a way that's as effective as it should be."


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