China Coal Deaths Prompt New Rules

China has ordered a ban on some new coal mines after a series of deadly accidents during preparations for the Olympic Games.
By Michael Lelyveld
BOSTON—China’s government has promised new safety measures for coal mines following a rash of fatalities as miners struggled to meet demands for more fuel during the Olympics.

On Aug. 15, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) said the government will ban new mines that produce less than 300,000 tons of coal per year if they pose a high risk of gas explosions, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

It was not made clear how that risk would be assessed.

SAWS has recorded 1,631 fatalities in coal mines so far this year through July. During the same period, 18 miners died in coal-mine accidents in the United States, according to data from the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The Olympics may have  put an added burden on China’s miners at a time when coal supplies at power plants have been running low.

Eleven days before the opening ceremonies, Vice Premier Li Keqiang visited China’s coal center in Shanxi Province and pressed workers to produce more so that Beijing could keep the power on, Xinhua said last month.

On July 31, the state-controlled China Daily cited “pressure on mine safety in Shanxi … as local miners are forced to overproduce.”

‘Massive challenge’

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Richard Ferris—an expert on worker-safety issues in China and a partner in the Washington law firm Holland and Knight—said the new safety drive reflects the conflict between ensuring power supplies and concerns over consequences.

“The safety issue is always a massive challenge in China,” Ferris said. “They’re also facing significant pressure to increase output, given the great demand [for coal] that remains ….”

China’s new rules mark the latest step to rein in accidents at small mines, which have poorer safety records than larger operations, Xinhua said. Gas blasts accounted for 1,084 of the 3,770 deaths in mine mishaps last year, according to SAWS.

SAWS has ordered larger mines to create their own rescue teams, while smaller facilities must coordinate rescue programs. But other measures appear to be only advisory. The agency has urged but not required new mines to build underground shelters with stores of food, water, and oxygen for emergencies, Xinhua said.

Ferris said the restriction on new mining operations appears to typify the government’s approach to safety regulations, since a ban is easier to administer than more detailed rules.

“It’s a much clearer approach to understanding who is in violation and who is not,” Ferris said, adding that there is always a question as to whether regulations will be enforced.

Some experts have voiced concern that official reports on mining fatalities, as bad as they are, may understate the real number of deaths taking place.

“I think it’s easy to get very skeptical about any statistics in China because of challenges with transparency,” though accuracy is improving, Ferris said. “There’s still quite a ways to go before we have true reporting.”

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

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