BOSTON--Thousands of workers died in China's coal mines last year, despite official statistics showing a major improvement in fatality rates.
On Jan. 16, Luo Lin, director of China's State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), said that coal mine deaths dropped by 15.1 percent in 2008, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The figure means that 3,214 workers perished in coal mining accidents last year, based on SAWS reports for 2007, according to Radio Free Asia calculations.
The reduction follows a reported 20-percent drop in coal mining fatalities in 2007. A SAWS official said that last year's improvement came despite a 7.5-percent increase in coal production to over 2.7 billion tons, according to the official China Daily.
But despite the gains measured by official data, China's coal mines remain the deadliest in the world. China produces more than twice as much coal as the United States, the second-largest producer, but its mining fatalities are over 110 times higher, RFA has calculated from U.S. Department of Energy reports.
Even based on the number of deaths per ton of coal, the fatality rate was 47 times higher in China than in the United States, where accidents claimed 29 lives last year.
Outside the law
While China's fatality figures are stunning by themselves, the latest reports suggest that its deadliest mines may be operating outside the law.
"Last year, illegal mines produced 35 percent of the nation's coal but accounted for 73 percent of mining deaths in the industry," Luo said, according to the English-language China Daily.
If those figures are accurate, China's illegal mines produced over 950 million tons of coal last year, or nearly as much as all U.S. mines.
Tim Wright, professor of Chinese studies at Great Britain's University of Sheffield and a coal industry expert, said there is confusion about Luo's statement because Chinese versions of the report quote him as referring to "small" rather than "illegal" mines.
"I'm skeptical about the quantity," Wright told Radio Free Asia, referring to the illegal production. "However, there's no doubt that the problem of illegal mining is very widespread and that illegal mining is strongly connected with the worst areas for fatalities."
It remains unclear whether the English-language reports have classed the small mines as "illegal."
"According to government figures, almost 80 percent of China's 16,000 coal mines are operating illegally," the China Daily said in the same report.
China has mounted many campaigns to close small and dangerous coal mines over the past decade, but the efforts have met with varying degrees of compliance and success.
At the township and village level, closed mines have often been allowed to reopen because they provide employment and income, while periodic coal shortages have increased pressure to produce from all resources.
In 2001, China's government claimed to have shut down 430,000 of the smallest mines over a three-year period. In 2006, the government announced plans to close all mines producing less than 30,000 tons a year by the end of 2007.
But frequent accident reports indicate that many remain open. Most recently in January, five workers died in a shaft flood in Anshun city of southwest Guizhou province at a 30,000-ton mine that had been ordered closed, according to Xinhua reports.
"Coal mines often experience the most serious accidents because so many of them are operating illegally," said Zhao Tiechui, SAWS supervisor for coal mining, according to the China Daily. "The industry also sees the most frequent covering-up of accidents." Luo said the agency found 168 accident cover- ups last year.
On Jan. 20, Xinhua reported that at least eight people died in December as the result of a mine accident in Shanyin county of Shanxi province. The company covered up the evidence by moving the bodies and cremating them, government investigators said.
"There are structural factors linking illegal mining to high levels of fatalities," said Wright. In some cases, illegal mine operators have reportedly shut off ventilation pumps for explosive gases in order to avoid noise and detection, he said.
The cover-ups also raise questions about whether the SAWS figures underestimate the real number of deaths.
"I don't think anybody thinks they're accurate," Wright said. "There's no doubt that they understate by an unknown percentage. Of course, by definition, the cases that SAWS mentions are the ones it's found out about, and there's a further collection of cases where it doesn't find out about them."
China's economic downturn and the need for more jobs raise the question of whether SAWS will find it easier or harder to shut down the illegal and unsafe mines this year.
"My guess is that it'll be easier, simply because the price of coal has been going down and there's less profit to be made," said Wright. But there are also pressures to keep coal output high so that China can reduce its rising reliance on imported oil.
On Jan. 8, China's Ministry of Land and Resources said the country will raise coal production to 2.9 billion tons by next year and boost output to 3.3 billion tons by 2015, Reuters reported.
But Wright said the government's plan to raise production from larger and safer mines faces hurdles because of the economy.
"Large, modern mines cost money," he said. "Amalgamating the small mines and raising their standards in terms of safety equipment to a reasonable minimum all costs money."
From that standpoint, the slide in coal prices is "probably bad news," he said.
In late 2005, SAWS set a goal of shutting 4,000 small mines annually over the following three years. Last year, the agency closed 1,054 "illegal mines," the China Daily quoted Luo as saying.