Learning lessons from coal mine disasters in Shanxi and West Virginia

25 June 2012

On 14 June 2012, the Xiangning County Court in rural Shanxi sentenced nine defendants to jail for their part in the Wangjialing coal mine disaster in which 38 miners died two years earlier. Eight of the defendants were sentenced to three years imprisonment while Jiang Shijie, the head of the construction team deemed most at fault for the flooding disaster, was given a four year jail term.

The Shanxi Administration for Coal Mine Safety had earlier fined the mine owner, Huajin Coking Coal Co. Ltd., 2.25 million yuan, while the construction company that was responsible for the digging work that caused the flooding, China Coal First Construction, was fined 2.1 million yuan.

The Wangjialing disaster occurred on 28 March 2010. Eight days later, in the afternoon of 5 April 2010, a massive coal dust explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine in the American coal heartland of West Virginia, killing 29 miners and injuring two others. It was the worst coal mine disaster in the United States for 40 years.

So far, only one person, the former security chief at the mine, has been convicted on criminal charges. Hughie Elbert Stover was sentenced to three years for lying to investigators after the explosion. He has appealed the sentence and has not yet been jailed. The former mine boss, Gary May, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the federal government and will be sentenced later this year.

However, following an extensive investigation into the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster by the US Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the then mine owner Massey Energy was fined US$10.8 million in administrative penalties. And a subsequent criminal investigation by the Department of Justice concluded with Alpha Natural Resources Inc., which had acquired Massey Energy in June 2011, agreeing to make payments and safety investments totalling US$209 million, the largest ever restitution made in a criminal investigation of a mine accident in the United States.

In other words; while more individuals went to jail in China, the American mine owners ended up paying about 600 times more in fines and penalties than the Chinese mine owner, which was a subsidiary of a larger state-owned conglomerate.

The fine handed down to Huajin Coking Coal Co. Ltd. was of course ridiculously small, given the profitability of the coal mining industry in China. In monetary terms it was little more than a slap on the wrist. That said, it does seem that the Wangjialing disaster, and the subsequent criminal and administrative penalties, did have some effect.

Seeking “zero accidents, zero deaths” 

In a speech in March this year outlining Huajin’s development plans for 2012, general manager Da Purong offered a sombre assessment of the company’s difficulties over the preceding years and pledged to “put safety first, production second” and achieve a target of “zero accidents, zero deaths.” 

In Shanxi as a whole there has been a noticeable improvement in safety in recent years. The province at the heart of China’s coal industry used to have an appalling record of accidents and deaths. Of the 192 major coalmine disasters (those involving more than ten deaths) officially recorded in China between 2003 and 2008, 45 occurred in Shanxi. However, in the last 18 months, there have been just two major accidents in Shanxi, out of 25 major accidents nationwide, according to the State Administration of Work Safety. Both of these disasters were flooding incidents that killed 11 miners each.

But while the situation in Shanxi has improved, the safety record in less well-regulated provinces remains dire, with 1,973 deaths across the whole country last year. China remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for coal miners, not just in terms of death and injury but occupational disease as well, with hundreds of thousands of miners suffering from deadly respiratory illnesses.

The United States, by contrast, has had one the safest coal mining industries in the world for many years now. The death toll in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster was about 50 percent higher than the number of coal mining deaths in the entire country over the whole of the previous year. Upper Big Branch was an extraordinary event that merited an extraordinary response. The record fines and safety investment requirements levied on the mine owners were aimed at ensuring that such a disaster could never happen again. In announcing the fines and penalties imposed on Alpha Natural Resources Inc. US Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II stated that:

There should never be another UBB, and this announcement is aimed squarely at that goal. For far too long, we've accepted the idea that catastrophic accidents are an inherent risk of being a coal miner. That mind-set is unacceptable.  Collectively, these requirements will set a new standard for what can and should be done to protect miners. We look forward to a future in which coal mining is as safe as any other occupation.

The specific technical and managerial problems identified by the MSHA investigation as being the root cause of the disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine would be instantly familiar to anyone who has studied the coal mine industry in China. The MSHA report pointed out that the “physical conditions that led to the explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at UBB and were entirely preventable.”  These included failure to properly maintain mining equipment, failure to properly ventilate the mine shaft, and failure to cover or remove highly combustible coal dust. While in the Wangjialing disaster in Shanxi, investigators found the cause of the accident to be the “failure of the construction team digging a new ventilation tunnel to ascertain the condition of an adjacent disused mine reservoir,” which was subsequently breached, and the “failure of the duty managers to take timely and decisive measures to evacuate workers underground once the breach was discovered.”

A workplace culture that valued production over safety

At the Upper Big Branch Mine, the investigators determined that Massey Energy had:

Promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.  

Such a workplace culture has been typical of coal mining companies throughout China for many years. China Labour Bulletin’s 2008 research report Bone and Blood: The Price of Coal in China showed that mine owners nearly always put profit before safety and that coal output routinely exceeded safe production levels. Investment in safety equipment was insufficient and unskilled workers were hired as miners and given only minimal protective gear. And in many places, mine owners and local government officials created an almost impenetrable network of collusion that prevented the central government’s well-intentioned safety measures from being enforced.

In many poorer regions of China where coal mining is the predominate source of tax revenue and employment, local government officials protect the mine from inspectors, either because they have been bought off by the mine owner or have a direct or indirect financial interest in the mine. And in the relatively impoverished region of West Virginia, Massey Energy too had considerable influence over state politics and individual lawmakers. An investigation noted that:

As the largest coal producer in the Appalachian region at the time of the disaster, Massey Energy used the leverage of the jobs it provided to attempt to control West Virginia’s political system. Through that control, the company challenged federal and state oversight agencies, including MSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. Many politicians were afraid to challenge Massey’s supremacy because of the company’s superb public relations campaign and because CEO Don Blankenship was willing to spend vast amounts of money to influence elections.

It seems obvious that when coal companies use their immense economic power and political influence to ignore and disregard laws and regulations designed to enhance safety and protect miners’ lives, the chances of a catastrophic accident increase immeasurably. In the United States, Massey Energy was probably the exception in an otherwise well regulated industry but in China, the “Massey Way” is still very much the norm.

In Shanxi, as mentioned above, there have been some encouraging signs however. One important development last year was a pilot project in the city of Lüliang, headquarters of Huajin Coking Coal Co. Ltd., to establish a system of collective wage negotiations. Such a program could be the first step to bringing miners into the mine safety decision making process. After all, if miners can negotiate decent wage levels, there is no reason they cannot negotiate decent and safe working conditions as well.

China Labour Bulletin has long argued that involving workers directly in decisions on mine safety can go a long way to reducing the chances of accidents and coal mine deaths. A properly trained and well-paid workforce is clearly best placed to recognise and assess any safety violations and potential dangers underground.

However simply recognising problems is not enough. The miners at Upper Big Branch knew all about the routine safety violations in their mine but, like many Chinese miners, they were threatened and intimidated by management into not reporting these problems to the inspectors. Miners need to be respected and listened to and their concerns addressed in a timely manner. But, in addition, miners or their representatives should be given the authority to ensure that all legal safety standards and practices are adhered to and to demand a halt in production in the face of imminent danger.

If China’s mine bosses are sincere about having “zero accidents and zero deaths,” and are willing to work with their employees to achieve those goals, then there is hope for the future of coal in China.

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