In the short span of nine days between November 14 and 22, 2001, six devastating mine accidents took place, five in Shanxi and one in Shandong Province, killing 99 and 13 miners respectively:
November 22, Thursday
27 miners were confirmed dead and 27 rescued in a gas explosion that took place in Qiaojiagou mine, Zhongyang County, Shanxi Province. The mine was slated to close down just two days earlier, but the mine owner ignored the order and continued operation.
November 18, Sunday
14 miners lost their life in a gas explosion in Xiangyu mine, Jincheng City, Shanxi Province.
November 17, Saturday
There was another gas explosion in Daquanwan mine, Datong City, Shanxi Province, claiming the life of 14 miners. At the end of November residents were evacuated from the immediate surroundings of the mine, as gas emissions continued and small blasts occurred every two to three hours for several days after the accident. Five other mines near Daquanwan were also in danger of toxic gas leaks and were ordered to shut. In Daquanwan there was already a gas explosion on September 14 killing 26 miners but no steps were taken to ensure closure and safety checks of the mine. People in charge, such as the contractor and the village party secretary fled arrest.
And on the same day, another accident occurred in Langgou Mine, Zhangqiu, Shandong Province. The mine was flooded and claimed the life of 13 miners.
November 15, Thursday
Poor ventilation caused a gas explosion in Podi mine, Tianning Town, Jiaocheng County, Shanxi Province, killing 33 miners and injuring 12. There was a prior gas explosion even at the initial stage of opening up the mine, and another two explosions within the span of two weeks.
On November 14, Wednesday
Poor ventilation also caused an explosion in Qingyu mine in Yuxian County, killing 11 miners, while another 26 escaped. The mine owner told police that the miners were dismantling machines and doing repair work but, a witness confirmed that repair material was transported to the scene in the morning after the blast to disguise mining activities; freshly mined coal was also found nearby.
Chinas coal production is one third of the worlds total but the rate of fatal mine accidents is four-fifths of the worlds total. In China, the fatality rate in 2000 went up to 14 deaths per million tonnes of coal mined, which is 11 times higher than that in Russia, 15 times higher than in India and 182 times higher than in the US.
Official figures show that 4,547 people were killed in 2,378 mine accidents during the first 10 months of this year. However, real figures are possibly much higher, as mine owners often cover up accidents by offering RMB15,000 to RMB20,000 compensation to the families of victims to keep the news under wraps.
The recent spate of accidents clearly shows that China is no closer to a solution to these catastrophes than ever before. The State Council Circular of June 14, 2001, in the latest attempt to increase safety by ordering all small mines to shut down by the end of September for inspection and revamping, went unheeded. As cold weather set in and coal prices increased mine operators, instead of shutting down the mines, speeded up production regardless of safety conditions. The price of coal this year is RMB50 higher per tonne than in previous years.
The reasons why dangerous mines slated for closure can continue operation are manifold. Apart from the lack of supervision by an independent trade union, they include close and often corrupt relationships between local officials and mine operators, a need by cash-strapped local governments for taxes coming from mining operations, a lack of coordinated government departmental supervision and a basic lack of inspectors.
There is also a lack of deterrence for those responsible. People in charge often flee arrest, as in the recently reported case of the Dawanquan mine contractor and village party secretary. There are also doubts whether local authorities are willing to enforce punishment. As China News Service reported on November 22, 2001, those responsible for the December 2000 blast in the Tianlong mine of Hejin City, Shanxi Province, which killed 48 miners, have remained in their positions.
Ambiguous and contradictory government policies are also responsible for the present predicament. One example is the system of short leases and unsecured length of tenure, discouraging investment into safety measures.
In the 1980s the State encouraged private mining to overcome the energy shortage. Most high-quality mines were kept under the control of state-owned enterprises and smaller, poorer quality mines requiring high level of investment in equipment and safety measures were made available to private explorers. However, up until now, operators can only obtain short operational licences, which can be recalled by the State at any time, even if the exploration period is not complete. Mine operators are uncertain how long they can keep the licence, so they strive to make a quick profit and are reluctant to invest into needed safety procedures, even though a small mine working with 20 miners can reportedly earn up to RMB200,000 a year without difficulty.
Another example is the statement by Shanxi provincial governor Liu Zhenhua, issued after Shanxis fifth gas explosion on 22 November.
According to China Daily, he ordered all of Shanxis coalmines to halt production for safety checks. He specified that the larger coalmines should suspend production for one week and the small ones should stay closed until safety inspectors cleared them.
Although he ordered all coalmines to shut down, when talking about state-owned mines he did not specify the time frame of closure or any action to be taken but merely noted that they should spare no effort to ensure safe production, prompting one official of the Shanxi Coal Mining Bureau to admit to the paper that the notice was self-contradictory.
This indicates that despite a show of regulations, circulars and statements, enforcing a province-wide closure of mines runs into difficulties beyond local protectionism and goes directly up against State interests.
More than 60% of Shanxis coal comes from small township coalmines and state media estimates that at least one third of those are prone to similar accidents and should be shut down immediately. But, Shanxi contains Chinas largest coal reserves and is responsible for a third of the countrys annual output and, since China continues to rely on coal for 70% of its energy, serious restrictions on mining in Shanxi could trigger a severe energy supply shortage.
In addition, more than half a million people were employed in the provinces mining and quarrying industries last year and, on average, 15% of farmers income comes from mining, thus a ban on mining could also seriously affect peoples livelihood in this region.
Therefore the state is stuck with half-solutions rather than a full-scale cleanup and the most recently proposed administrative measures to bring small private mine operators in line are insufficient and more likely to make things worse for miners than better.
Huang Yi, a spokesman for the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety Supervision was quoted by Peoples Daily on 29 November giving details of new government measures to deal with the crisis: First, the State plans to levy a heavy tax on mine owners income. Second, power and water firms are advised to increase their tariff for local coalmines. Third, the State plans to increase compensation for those killed in mine accidents [to] RMB100,000 for the family members of the victims.
Even if increasing the compensation is notable, it will not save lives. And increasing the taxation and overhead of mines will surely increase the pressure on miner owners to speed up operations further regardless of safety conditions rather then invest into safety measures. This will possibly result in even more loss of life.
While the State, state-orchestrated trade unions, local governments and mine operators have an agenda taking precedence over human lives, miners in the countryside are forced by poverty to accept the job and descend daily into the mines knowing that today, it may be their turn to die.
(China Labour Bulletin, 14/12/2001)