23 November 2009
Beijing - The huge Chinese coal mine blast that left 104 people dead has reignited concerns over the heavy human cost of the nation's voracious coal demand, with accidents still common despite a safety push.
Moved by a public outcry over a string of deadly mishaps, the government launched a campaign in recent years to close illegal or unsafe mines, shutting down more than 12 000 by the end of last year, according to government figures.
Yet barely a week goes by without a coal mine caving in, being flooded, or ripped apart by a gas explosion - with deadly results - as work continues in a crucial industry on which China depends for about 70% of its energy.
Accidents are typically blamed on mine operators who flout even the most basic safety standards in the rush to meet the country's coal demand.
Underlining the scale of the problem, Saturday's coal mine explosion in the city of Hegang in northeastern Heilongjiang province occurred in a huge state-owned mine, not one of the small illegal pits targeted in the crackdown.
The accident "illustrates once again that nationalisation and restructuring the coal mine industry is not of itself the answer to coal mine safety in China," Geoffrey Crothall, spokesperson for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, told AFP.
"Even in state-run mines the managers are more interested in profit than people. They want to fulfill and exceed their production quotas not only because it makes them look good, but it makes them lots of money as well."
As with previous huge mining disasters, the explosion in Hegang's Xinxing mine on Saturday has sparked renewed calls for tighter management of the industry to protect the nation's estimated seven million coal miners.
"We definitely cannot exchange the lives and blood of our workers for GDP growth," Heilongjiang governor Li Zhanshu lamented in a post-accident speech.
"Production safety at coal mines must be made a top priority that we can hang our hearts on and grasp in our hands," he said in the speech posted on his government's website Monday.
According to official figures, China's coal output nearly doubled from 2000 to 2007, when 2.52 billion tonnes were produced.
As the nation's appetite for energy continues to soar, China will need to produce 3.3 billion tonnes of coal annually by 2015 to meet expected demand, government officials have said.
Official figures say coal mine deaths have dropped in recent years, with the government crediting the decline to the closures of many mines.
More than 3 200 miners were killed in China's coal mines in 2008, down from nearly 3 800 in 2007, the government has said.
But activists say those numbers likely downplay the problem, as many accidents are believed to be covered up by mine operators seeking to avoid shutdown, fines or criminal prosecution.
Labour activists also say some mine operators neglect to take costly safety measures because it is cheaper to just pay fines for the occasional accident.
A preliminary investigation of the Heilongjiang accident has indeed pointed to lax management at the mine, according to Luo Lin, director of the State Work Safety Administration and head of a probe into the disaster.
"The mine's safety responsibility system did not work. They were not checking earnestly enough for hidden dangers," Luo told state television.
The Xinxing mine is operated by state-owned Longmay Mining Holding Group, which also saw 178 miners die in November 2005 in an accident at another of its mines in Heilongjiang.
While claiming recent improvements in work safety for miners, Heilongjiang provincial governor Li said "this accident has reversed the situation... the lessons that we must learn from this accident are tragic and sad and have fully exposed our shortcomings."