The north-eastern province of Shandong has ordered the closure of all non-coal mining operations in response to two major accidents at gold mines that killed at least 16 miners, state media reported.
An explosion at the Hushan Gold Mine on 10 January trapped 22 workers underground, setting in motion a dramatic two-week-long rescue effort. Eventually 11 miners were rescued, but ten miners were confirmed dead at the scene and one is still officially classified as missing.
The second incident occurred at the Caojiawa Gold Mine on 17 February. A fire broke out early in the morning when ten miners were working underground. Two workers died at the scene and four later succumbed to their injuries. The four remaining workers were successfully rescued.
Both mines are located close to the port city of Yantai in an area that contains about one-quarter of China’s total gold deposits and is said to include the country’s single largest gold deposit, estimated at up to 550 tonnes.
All non-coal mining operations in Shandong will remain closed until they pass a province-wide inspection campaign, which is expected to last until the end of March, officials said.
The closure order was the third such regional rectification campaign in the last three months. All coal mines in the southern city of Leiyang were closed after 13 miners were trapped in a flooded mine shaft at the Yuanjiangshan Coal Mine on 29 November. Earlier, on 23 October, two miners died and another was injured in a mine shaft transportation accident at the Sijiachong Coal Mine.
A similar order was imposed by the municipal government of Chongqing after the deaths of 39 workers in two separate carbon-monoxide poisonings that occurred in the last quarter of 2020. The State Council’s Safety Commission criticized the city government, by saying it should learn important lessons from the two tragedies, carry out a comprehensive investigation into coal mine safety in the region, and eliminate all hidden dangers. “Coal mine safety officials must strictly enforce the law, crackdown on non-compliance, eliminate outdated production capacity in a safe and orderly manner, and resolutely prevent and contain major accidents,” it said.
Closure and inspection campaigns have been the standard response of China’s authorities to major mining accidents for several decades. And while the number of accidents and deaths has steadily declined since the 2000s, it is doubtful that inspection campaigns have been a significant contributory factor. State media have documented on numerous occasions how mines and other hazardous enterprises have undergone government inspections, been fined and ordered to resolve their safety issues, only to suffer another accident soon afterward.
The decline in accidents and deaths in the mining sector is more likely related to reduction in demand and capacity and the consolidation of the industry leading to a higher proportion of large-scale, mechanized mines employing fewer workers. Officially, there were 434 mining accidents in China in 2020, with 573 deaths - a drop of 19 percent and 22 percent, respectively, compared with the previous year.