China's government has issued a new warning against illegal coal mining after a gas blast killed at least 23 workers in southwestern Guizhou province last month.
Central government authorities ordered a crackdown against reopening of unsafe mines after the explosion at the Xiangshui Coal Mine in Liupanshui city on Nov. 24.
In an order on the same day, the State Council's production safety committee said that some mines had illegally resumed operations without fixing safety problems following suspension for violations.
"The coal mines which have failed to meet the safety standards should not be reopened, and those who abuse their power to lower overhaul standards would be punished," the official Xinhua news agency quoted the order as saying.
While the accident at the Xiangshui mine in Panxian county was not specifically cited, reports suggest that the case was particularly grievous, prompting a sharp central government response.
Twenty-eight workers were in the mine on a Saturday morning at the time of the explosion. Eighteen were killed immediately, according to state media reports.
The relatively new mine, opened in 2006, "has a history of coal gas explosions, and the company has failed to come up with preventive measures," the official English-language China Daily said.
The chairman of the mine's operating company and two other officials were fired while a manager at another affiliated company resigned after an investigation, Xinhua said.
The State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) and the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety "blamed inadequate measures to prevent gas outburst," the report said.
While China has made major strides in reducing coal mine fatalities in recent years, the case highlights non-compliance with central government safety orders at the provincial and local levels.
Although rules require adequate gas venting systems, the reports suggest that these were absent at the Xiangshui mine and that it was operating despite an earlier shutdown for violations.
Tim Wright, a China coal mining expert and professor of East Asian studies at Britain's University of Sheffield, said it is unlikely that the operation could have escaped the notice of local safety officials.
"I don't think they could seriously reopen large-scale production without paying off someone, basically," Wright said in an interview, but he added that he has seen no evidence in this specific case.
Small mining operations
SAWS has previously targeted small mines as the most dangerous and biggest source of accidents, but Xiangshui is relatively large with production capacity of 4 million metric tons per year, according to Xinhua.
Its reserves are estimated at 1.3 billion tons, making it a major resource.
The mine also supplies the Pannan Power Station, which was cited as a "key part of the government's strategy" to tap western resources for eastern industry. It is unclear whether power demand may have added pressure to keep production going at all costs.
The case suggests that safety officials may have to go beyond previously announced plans to close 625 small mines by the end of the year in order to reduce worker deaths.
In August, SAWS spokesman Huang Yi said that 85 percent of China's mines are small operations that account for one-third of production but two-thirds of fatal accidents.
Some 1,200 accidents claimed the lives of 1,973 coal miners last year, according to SAWS. The official death toll was down 19 percent from 2010.
Illegal mines deadly
But reports of the Xiangshui explosion stressed that nearly half of the deaths are the result of illegal mining.
In the first three quarters of this year, 1,146 workers were killed in 650 coal accidents, said Fu Jianhua, head of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, on Oct. 23.
Illegal operations accounted for 46.5 percent of the accidental deaths, Fu said.
Tim Wright said it is difficult to interpret the statistic, since it could include mines that were found to be operating with violations after accidents occurred.
Mines must obtain as many as nine permits to operate legally, and some may not be able to bear the bureaucratic burden to keep them all in effect.
"That may give local governments the excuse to say after an accident, this is not a mine that had our approval, it's an illegal mine," said Wright.
But the illegal reopening of mines after suspensions for safety violations has also been common for "many years," he said.
The quick response from the central government in the Guizhou case may be a sign of its determination to cut fatality rates further this year.
But there have been other recent signs that local officials and mine operators have disregarded safety regulations.
In October, an RFA review of accident reports found that mines have routinely ignored Premier Wen Jiabao's order in 2010 that managers or supervisors should accompany workers underground at all times to ensure that safety rules are observed.
In the latest case, mine managers were fired, but none were reported to be underground when the explosion occurred.
A need to centralize
Although China once had hundreds of thousands of village mines, it is continuing to struggle with regulating a much smaller number of operations after ordering mergers, modernization, and the closing of dangerous pits.
Wright said SAWS is "very thinly stretched" and unable to monitor even the officially listed number of 12,000 mines without relying on local authorities, who may look the other way.
"There is no doubt that this is a very difficult problem for the government with different pressures pulling in different directions," he said. "Certainly, they would have to put much more resources into that organization and unambiguously centralize it."
"There's been very substantial progress over the last 10 years. It's important to remember that, but for further progress, probably a stronger centralized organization is necessary," Wright said.