At least 35 miners dead at China’s “miracle” coal mine

One week after the “miracle rescue” of 115 miners from a flooded coal mine in Shanxi, the death toll at the Wangjialing Mine has risen to 35, with three miners still unaccounted for.

Meanwhile, the official Chinese media has suppressed the story that only last week dominated the headlines, and local government leaders are scrambling to placate and control grieving relatives and prevent any public protests.

Although the rescue of more than one hundred miners trapped underground for eight days was indeed remarkable, both the causes of the accident and the government’s response to it are sadly familiar, and show that very few lessons, if any, about coal mine safety have been learned.

There had been repeated warnings about the danger of flooding for three days prior to the Wangjialing disaster, all of which were ignored by management at the state-owned enterprise as they pushed ahead to open a new mine shaft and boost production. Less than six months earlier, at another state-owned mine, management ignored warnings of dangerously high gas levels for 43 minutes before an explosion ripped though the Hegang Mine in Heilongjiang killing 108 miners underground.

The closure of small-scale and unlicensed coal mines and the merger of private mines with larger state-owned mines, which was supposed to improve mine safety, has in fact put pressure on those larger state-owned mines to increase production. And increasing production without taking the requisite measures to improve safety inevitably leads to tragedy.

Once a tragedy occurs, local government and, in this case, central government officials are more concerned with damage control than the needs of families waiting for news about those tapped underground. During the Wangjialing rescue, relatives were kept in the dark and only allowed to visit their loved ones in hospital once their condition had improved enough for them to be shown on national television.

The survivors were given star treatment by local officials and the media. Many were transferred to the best hospital in the provincial capital Taiyuan and allocated their own specialist team of doctors and nurses. Hitherto, their wellbeing had been ignored by mine mangers and the local government officials who were supposed to be monitoring occupational health and safety.

The relatives of those who died will receive compensation of at least 200,000 yuan but that will almost certainly come with strings attached. Most post-accident compensation awards are one off payments which terminate the labour relationship of the dead miner and absolve the mine of any future liability. As a result, families can not seek additional compensation through the courts or in any other way seek redress for the loss of their main bread winner.

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