MAC/20: Mines and Communities

In China, gold rush wreaks toxic death

Published by MAC on 2003-09-14


In China, gold rush wreaks toxic death

14 September 2003

By Gady A. Epstein Baltimore Sun, SHANGSHAN, China

The oxygen tank at Wu Shengfu's side fills his scarred lungs with enough air to breathe but not enough to talk for long about why, at 48 years old, he will be dying soon.

His friends do their best to help explain, even at the risk of being harassed by police, because many of them too will succumb to an early death. Slowly, the men of this village in central China are dying, and the local authorities here, having profited from their labors, would prefer that they die in silence.

This village's slow death began with its apparent salvation, the discovery of gold in the hard rock of nearby Earth Dragon Mountain in 1986. A government-run mine was formally set up on one part of the mountain, apparently employing standard safety measures. But from the late 1980s through the 1990s, village officials made a separate arrangement, selling to hundreds of villagers the right to drill and blast for ore in a makeshift mining operation of their own.

The work earned the officials and, villagers say, county police an untold fortune while providing modest incomes for the subsistence farmers of Shangshan, 750 miles south of Beijing.

That the authorities were themselves farmers and police who knew nothing about gold mining was not an obstacle. This was a Communist Party version of capitalism: The land belonged to the state, so the mine and its rewards would belong to the state. The villagers would bear the risks by working long hours in dangerous conditions for relatively little pay.

In time, the gold rush in this community of 14,500 in Jiangxi province became a tragic microcosm of the economic free-for-all under way in China, where the winners are well-connected, the losers have little recourse, and, often, no one is held accountable.

"I wanted to make money," said Wu, slumped in a plastic chair while a clear tube fed oxygen into his nostrils. His 20-year-old son elaborated for him: "Everyone wanted to make money out of it."

Without much supervision from local authorities, Wu and other villagers worked seven days a week drilling into the rock on Earth Dragon Mountain to mine gold ore for the government and, furtively, for themselves. They also breathed in huge amounts of white dust - silica from quartz - because they weren't wearing masks or any other protective equipment.

The dust was everywhere, Wu's friends said, so thick sometimes that one couldn't see a fellow miner a few feet away. It would sit in their lungs for years until the miners, one by one, developed silicosis, an incurable lung disease.

With silicosis, much as with asbestosis, inhaled dust irritates the sacs of the lungs, which can lead to widespread scarring. The scarring can make breathing difficult and eventually contribute to choking off circulation. People with typical cases of silicosis might develop the disease as long as two decades after exposure and suffer chronic breathing problems but not die directly from the illness. In Shangshan, the cases were much more severe, as miners began to die within five or six years of the mine's opening.

"Several people died from this disease in '92, '93, but we didn't know what it was," said Zhu Shihui, 35, one of the miners suffering from the illness.

'No way out'

Unaware of the connection, the villagers kept working, and the mine kept operating. But in 1993, one miner with breathing problems went to see doctors at the village clinic, then at the county hospital, and again at a major hospital in the provincial capital, Nanchang, a six-hour bus ride away. At each stop, he found no explanation for his symptoms.

Finally, he learned about silicosis and his village's fate from a doctor at Jiangxi province's occupational health institute in Nanchang: "He predicted that Shangshan village would be a widows' village in 10 years' time," Zhu said, recounting what the doctor told the sick miner, who died in 1996. "A lot of people shed tears when [the miner] got back. I didn't cry. It's useless to cry. There's no way out of it."

The institute advised the miners to drill only with protective sprays of water to minimize dust and to wear cloth masks - basic safety standards that other nations adopted more than a half- century ago.

Until that point, the Shangshan miners could hardly have worked in more deadly conditions, experts say.

"This is as bad as it gets. This is very reminiscent of how the situation was on the Witswatersrand, in the South African gold mines when they were first opened in 1886, when there was dry drilling," said Jill Murray, principal pathologist with the National Centre for Occupational Health in Johannesburg, South Africa. "People died like flies."

By the mid-1990s, a significant percentage of the adult males in Shangshan had worked in the mine and been exposed to potentially lethal amounts of silica. Estimates of the number of men involved range from about 1,000 to 3,000. To date, villagers said, silicosis has been diagnosed in nearly 600 men, though the village's party secretary put the figure at 399 confirmed cases, with 185 more currently being evaluated. More than 50 have died.

"I didn't know it could kill," Wu said, his wife and mother sitting at his side, taking turns cooling him with a wooden fan. Since he "felt nothing" as he breathed in the dust, he just kept on working.

Silicosis, a well-known problem in the gold-mining industry worldwide, is preventable with safety measures. But in the race to make money in modern China, the fourth-largest producer of gold in the world, workplace safety has yet to become a top priority.

The central government has enacted increasingly tough laws and measures on occupational safety, but it lacks the professional bureaucracy, institutional will and resources to enforce them at the lower levels of government. For most local governments, the economic incentives of keeping factories and mines open, and continuing to generate profits in which those governments often share either by design or through corruption, typically overwhelm any interest in worker safety.

China's coal mines, for example, are among the deadliest in the world. Analysts estimate that as many as 10,000 people die each year in coal mines in China - about 50 percent higher than official statistics because mine operators routinely underreport accidents and deaths. That's about seven or eight deaths per million metric tons of coal production, a death rate almost 200 times higher than that of the United States.

The men of Shangshan were eager to work as miners. The village was on its way to another sort of death, as the hard realities of subsistence farming of rice began giving way in the early 1990s to hopes of better opportunities in China's big cities. The gold mine gave the villagers that hope right at home.

And for the first time in memory, the people here earned a little money. For a brief period, according to villagers, Wu and others, including village officials themselves, used pickaxes to mine the rock for gold illegally, before the county police stepped in and took control. In that period, Wu said, he made about $1,200 - perhaps two to three years' income for a rice farmer - and he bought the house he was now sitting in.

A brutal enterprise

Even after village officials sold miners the rights to drill, villagers said, they could make as much as $120 a month mining for the government, depending on how much gold they recovered. Sometimes, they could make more by hiding some of the gold they found and selling it illegally to businessmen from other provinces.

But it was a brutal enterprise, villagers said, run with cruel efficiency by local officials for their own benefit.

The county police, enforcing the state's rights to the gold, set up a special "gold police" to monitor the mining activity and make sure villagers turned over all the ore to authorities, villagers said. Plainclothes and uniformed officers would search villagers' homes in the middle of the night, detain some who did not turn in ore and, according to one villager, sometimes beat family members of people who did not comply with demands.

Village officials, meanwhile, absolved themselves of any responsibility for the miners' livelihoods. They had sold the miners the rights to drill for gold and, they reasoned, had virtually nothing to do with what happened in the mines or to the gold that was found. They and the police, villagers said, simply made sure they got their money.

"The profit went to the police and to the village government," said Wu's son, Wu Mulin. "It's certain that the government above the county level didn't get any money out of it."

Officials blame villagers

An official with the county police denied in a telephone interview that officers ever raided villagers' homes for gold or that police played any role in overseeing or abetting the mining activity.

Declining to give his name, the official said the police sought to prevent villagers from mining on the mountain, where another officially sanctioned mine operated with proper safety precautions. That legal mine, he said, at its peak produced ore containing more than 220 pounds of gold a year.

He said that Shangshan officials illegally contracted with villagers to mine the ore and that the villagers illegally and "secretly" drilled and blasted on the mountain despite efforts to stop them. The police official said he had no idea how much gold the villagers managed to mine, saying the police never received any profit or gold from their drilling. He said that villagers sold almost all the gold to smugglers from other provinces.

"The silicosis patients are lying," he said.

Top village officials acknowledged they contracted with the miners but, in telephone interviews, declined to elaborate. They also denied that the police mistreated miners. Villagers countered that authorities have tried to prevent them from spreading their story beyond the county. Recently, after a foreign reporter's visit to the village, the police went to miners' homes asking who helped the reporter.

For the villagers, the mining was the only thing akin to a state job available to them, and many men eagerly grabbed it.

"Before we were very poor. Making some money made us all very happy," said Xu Fengsao, 87, mother of the ill miner, Wu Shengfu. "It isn't easy to make that money. People would sacrifice their sleep to make that money."

Seven men in Xu's family - three sons and four grandsons - worked on Earth Dragon Mountain. All seven men have since contracted silicosis, including two who have died.

The material rewards of the gold rush have become the villagers' bitter harvest: the two small gold hoop earrings Xu wears now, for example, and this six-room house Wu built with money from mining. Wu sold the house earlier this month to support his son's college education and will move back into his old three-room house of wood and mud for the remainder of his days.

Now that the gold rush is over, the village's economy is crumbling. The other men of Shangshan with silicosis are in better health than Wu, but most have difficulty walking long distances in a place where in normal times everybody has to walk to do anything. The village now has an unusual number of motorcycles, and many of the riders are former miners.

"Some of the stronger ones use the motorcycles to transport people for some extra money," said Zhu Shihui.

"The problem is silicosis patients are not supposed to do heavy labor, but these peasants ... are the major labor force of their family," said Li Zhiming, deputy chief of the Jiangxi province Labor, Health, Occupational Disease Prevention and Treatment Research Institute, the place that first concluded that Shangshan miners had silicosis. "If they don't work, the whole family has nothing to eat. The social security system doesn't take care of the peasants."

Silicosis, a problem that experts said is largely under control in many parts of the world, is China's number-one occupational health issue today, according Fu Hua, a public health expert at the Medical Center of Fudan University in Shanghai.

There's little sign that the situation is improving. State television reported in July that there were 12,248 reported new cases of dust-related lung disease last year - most of them silicosis - a 16.6 percent increase from 2001. The report mentioned the case of a Chongqing coal firm that had nearly 1,900 silicosis cases - and more than 600 deaths - in a company that employs 14,000 people.

If China has yet to confront seriously the issue of workplace safety today, safety was certainly not at issue here 15 years ago, at a remote, locally run mountain mine.

Even as they were dying off, the silicosis patients said they received no support from the local government. In 1997, some joined together to sue the Shangshan village government, ultimately winning a settlement under which sick miners receive compensation based on the severity of their case at the time of evaluation - from about $960 to about $1,440. Children of silicosis patients also get their tuition and book fees waived for grades one through nine, a benefit that comes with a tinge of irony because schools are supposed to be free through ninth grade.

Patients now receive $35 to $60 a year from the government, according to Zhu Hongjun, the village's Communist Party secretary. Zhu said the village has borrowed a total of about $500,000 to compensate silicosis patients and has set up a fund for some of the worst cases. But the fund has collected less than $2,000 so far.

'The family is broken'

Instead, the women of Shangshan are left to take care of their dying husbands and sons, and the families have difficulty surviving the strain.

"People like us, not only we die, but also the family is broken," said Zhu Shihui, who has a wife and three children. "The wives are still very young. They will remarry, and the children will be left uncared for. Some of the goodhearted ones will stay, but others will just leave their children."

Already, villagers said, there are some children who have been all but orphaned by the gold mine in this way. Other children of dead or dying men, like Wu's, are leaving for better opportunities.

A daughter, Wu Jinchun, left town at the age of 14 to work in a pen factory. Now 16, she has worked for almost a year in a karaoke bar at a hotel in the bustling coastal city of Shenzhen in Guangdong province, earning $60 to $75 a month. She returned home last month to help care for her father. The son, Wu Mulin, is off to broadcasting college in the provincial capital.

"Other than tending the rice paddies," he said, "there is nothing left to do in this village."

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