China's Mining Deaths Mount

Deadly mining accidents in China have claimed at least 223 lives in the past week, despite government claims that safety has improved.
By Michael Lelyveld
BOSTON--China's coal mining accidents continue to occur at an alarming rate, raising doubts about efforts to control the deadly trade, experts say.

Over the past week, at least 45 miners were killed and another 33 remained trapped in four separate accidents reported by state media. Gas explosions took place at mines in Liaoning, Sichuan, Hebei, and Yunnan provinces, while flooding has stranded 18 miners underground in Henan.

The coal casualties are in addition to at least 178 deaths in Shanxi Province, where a mud and rock slide buried workers at an unlicensed iron mine and local residents on Sept. 8, according to official Xinhua reports. The accident at the Tashan Mine in Xiangfen County has sparked protests among angry residents, the Reuters news agency said.

Thirteen mine officials, including the owner and company chairman, have been taken into police custody, the Associated Press reports, citing state media. The party secretary and governor of Taosi township, as well as safety officials, have also been suspended from their jobs.

The steady drumbeat of disasters has been part of a sad routine for China. In the first seven months of this year, coal miners have been dying in accidents at the rate of over 50 per week, according to statistics from the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS).

SAWS officials claim that China has been making steady reductions in deaths as coal production climbs to over 2.5 billion tons per year. But critics say the country's runaway demand for coal-fired power has kept safety risks unacceptably high.

Data compared

A Radio Free Asia comparison of official labor and energy data in China and the United States shows dramatic contrasts in mine safety.

China has 5.5 million coal miners, or over 14 times as many as in the United States, but it produces only a little more than twice as much coal.

Even with a reduction in the number of fatalities reported in 2006, China recorded 3,786 coal mining deaths, or 111 times more than the United States, in 2007. On the basis of each ton of coal mined, China's death rate was 50 times higher.

In January, SAWS Minister Li Yizhong pointed to corruption among mine operators and government officials as a factor in poor safety practices, AFP News reported. But Li also cited "lack of training and education," saying that 56 percent of coal miners are migrant workers.

Policies blamed

In Radio Free Asia interviews, energy experts blamed government policies rather than migrant workers for the high safety risks and death rates.

The problems of lax supervision and poor safety practices are particularly grave at smaller mines, where the accident rates are higher, said Philip Andrews-Speed, who heads the University of Dundee's Center for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy in Edinburgh, Scotland.

"I think the responsibility has to lie with the government at different levels," he said. "The county government is the key level for enforcing standards and regulations and providing training."

Controlled prices for power and energy waste are frequently cited as central government policy problems that result in demand on the thousands of small, inefficient mines that lack mechanization.

"The large number of workers relates to the economics of the small-mining sector, which is that you're after quick profits so you don't want to invest as an owner," said Andrews-Speed. "And if the governments are not enforcing the high standards, then you will not invest."

"If you are not investing, you will hire from the large pool of cheap labor," he said.

'Back to work'

Robert Ebel, chairman of the energy security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the central government has promoted safety but has not committed resources to enforcing it.

"They can talk about it. They can say we're going to do this, we're going to do that, but I don't see it happening," said Ebel. "They know that they don't really have control over outlying mines, and they need the coal so they just sort of look the other way."

Ebel said that death rates among miners in the United States are much lower because of public pressure for safety, but in China, the goal of meeting the country's power demand seems to be the overriding concern.

"I don't see the pressure in China responding to the deaths," he said. "Everybody goes back to work."

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