Coal mine equipment salvage operation ends in 23 deaths

07 December 2020

Twenty-three workers died of carbon monoxide poisoning on Friday, 4 December, after being sent into a disused coal mine in Chongqing to salvage old mining equipment. 

State media reported that investigators suspect the sudden buildup of carbon monoxide was directly linked to the dismantling of mine equipment. The buildup reached a concentration of 1,700 parts per million, 34 times the amount an adult can withstand.

The Diaoshuidong Coal Mine in the Yongchuan district of Chongqing had been closed for two months after its permit expired and the owner was reportedly selling off equipment as scrap metal. The mine, which had employed about 200 workers from nearby villages, had been in decline for several years and its resources were nearly depleted when its permit expired. Prior to the accident, it was reported that laid-off miners who were still owed wages tried to prevent managers from selling off the equipment.

The Diaoshuidong mine was the site of several prior accidents, dating back to 2012, the year after the mine was privatised. On 25 March 2013, for example, three miners died and two were injured in a hydrogen sulfide gas poisoning accident at the mine. Local authorities had, in addition, imposed numerous penalties on the mine for safety violations including a 18,000 yuan fine last December for violating coal mine face operation regulations.

Friday’s incident was the second major coal mine accident in Chongqing in the last three months. On 27 September, 16 miners died in another carbon monoxide poisoning incident when a conveyor belt caught fire at the Songzao Coal Mine.

In response, the State Council’s Safety Commission stated that the Chongqing government 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 “Coal mine safety officials must strictly enforce the law, crackdown on non-compliance, eliminate outdated production capacity in a safe and orderly manner, and resolutely prevent and contain major accidents,” it said.

However, China Labour Bulletin’s Work Accident Map has recorded 16 coal mine accidents in Chongqing over the last five years, which is fewer than in the adjacent south-western provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, suggesting that the municipality’s coal mine safety record is not significantly worse than its neighbours. 

Although the number of coal mine accidents and deaths in China has decreased steadily over the last two decades, there were still 316 fatalities last year, and systemic problems remain in the industry despite repeated calls by the government to eliminate all major accidents.

As CLB has pointed out on numerous occasions in the past, the lack of any meaningful worker or trade union involvement in coal mine safety supervision means that employers can largely dictate working conditions for miners and insist that production continue even in clearly hazardous circumstances. 

In October, for example, CLB Executive Director Han Dongfang spoke with a trade union official in Sangzhi county, Hunan, about a coal mine fire that severely injured three workers. The official admitted that the mine had not established an enterprise trade union and that the county union was not even aware of the 20 July accident until CLB notified it. The official conceded:

“It is very difficult for private enterprises to set up union organizations. On one hand the enterprise boss does not want a union; on the other hand, the county trade union does not have enough personnel to really push this work.”

Meanwhile, rescue work reportedly continues at the Yuanjiangshan Coal Mine in Leiyang after 13 miners were trapped in a flooded mine shaft more than a week ago on 29 November. However, the rescue operation has been repeatedly hampered by the complex geological conditions at the mine, and hope of finding the trapped miners alive is fading.

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