MAC: Mines and Communities

China's coal catastrophe

Published by MAC on 2006-07-29

China's coal catastrophe

The Independent (UK) Report by Clifford Coonan

29th July 2006

China produces more coal than anywhere else in the world, fuelling the country's economic boom. But it comes at a terrible price: the mines are the world's deadliest, and their environmental impact is catastrophic. Safer - and cleaner - technology exists. But is there the political will to make it happen?

The trucks rattling away from the collieries in China's Shanxi province are on a tight schedule. There are lumps of coal lying on the grass verges beside the roads. Pollution from the coking plants chokes the air while in some places the whole landscape looks like it's been coated with fine coal dust. Datong is one of these places.

The city is one of the three most polluted in China - the other two, Linfen and Yangquan, are in Shanxi province as well - and when you tell people in China you are going to Datong, it often provokes a strange reaction. They point at the sky and say "hei yu", or "black rain". Some of Shanxi looks like the surface of the moon. A gaudy, patriotic poster promoting Communist ideals will sometimes break the grey, northern monotone, but what little colour there is tends to come from a miner's red helmet, or flashes of neon from a restaurant sign in a town where mining families live. The colliers' work clothes are grey or gunmetal blue.

China mines more coal than anywhere else, around one third of the world's total, and Shanxi is the biggest producer in China, accounting for a quarter of the country's output - around 600 million tons last year. Also, about half of the coke supply in the world market is from the province.

Coal is a matter of life and death in China, heating homes and powering the factories that produce the goods driving China's economic boom. More than half of all finished industrial goods are now made in China, and they could not have been manufactured without power from coal. The economic boom has lifted hundreds of millions of people off the poverty line, but the downside is immense. China's coal mines are also the world's deadliest, by a big margin, accounting for 80 per cent of mining deaths globally. Put it this way - every million tons of coal produced in the country costs the lives of around five Chinese people. Output is increasing by 15 per cent a year and the number of coal mining deaths is expected to rise too, despite government efforts to close the worst offending mines. Last year, 6,000 workers (* -see note) were killed by floods, fires and explosions caused by lax safety rules and inadequate safety equipment, sacrifices to the country's massive hunger for coal as the economy simmers.

In February last year, an explosion ripped through a colliery in Liaoning province killing 214 workers in what was China's deadliest mine disaster since 1949. Just a fortnight ago, 53 miners were killed in an explosion in the Linjiazhuang colliery of Lingshi county, near Jinzhong City.

Safety standards are regularly ignored in the interest of ramping up production; a Chinese miner is 100 times more likely to die in a workplace accident than his American counterpart. China's economic boom has mostly benefited the cities of the eastern seaboard and the southern provinces, and left many rural areas still struggling.

Most of the miners are farmers who are on the wrong side of the growing rural-urban wealth divide. Increasingly desperate, they head for provinces such as Shanxi and take work down the pits of small, dangerous, mostly private coal mines. Last year, 468 Shanxi miners died in accidents out of a nationwide casualty toll of 5,986.

The private collieries are where most of the accidents take place. Operators ignore safety standards to maximise output, and squeeze as much coal as they can out of the ground. Illegal mines, when shut down, routinely reopen once inspectors leave, lured by buoyant coal prices. Many of the deaths at the illegal coal mines go unreported. Operators try to get rid of bodies of dead miners to cover up accidents. Others threaten to withhold compensation, usually around £2,000, unless family members of the dead agree not to publicise the accidents.

As one unscrupulous mine owner comments in Li Yang's powerful 2003 film about the Shanxi mining industry, Blind Shaft: "There's a shortage of everything except people in China."

The side-effects are numerous. Over-mining has hollowed out one-seventh of land in Shanxi and many people live in constant fear that the earth under their feet may suddenly subside, swallowing them and their houses, burying them alive. Most villagers in Xindao, in the suburbs of the provincial capital Taiyuan, have abandoned their ramshackle houses as the village has sunk by at least three metres over the past few years.

Shanxi is a province of extremes and it's hard to imagine that Datong is in the same region as the magnificent 600-year-old walled city of Pingyao, the revered Buddhist temples in the Wutai mountains, and the grand compounds, owned by rich Shanxi bankers and landowners before the Communists swept to power in 1949.

Tourists come in their droves. A mere 16 kilometres from Datong lie the 1,500-year-old Cloud Ridge Caves, a spectacular complex of Buddhist sculptures carved into sandstone grottoes. Pollution is slowly but surely eating away the faces and features of the statues.

For many years after 1949, reporting on mine disasters was illegal, but the government has relaxed the rule in recent times as it figures that bad publicity will make it harder for corrupt local officials to operate. It's a regular fixture on China's evening television news - the sight of grimy-faced emergency workers rushing out of pit mouths with injured and dead coal miners on stretchers, weeping relatives looking on. The images have been broadcast country-wide and touched a nerve.

Dealing with the deadly industry is a tricky balancing act for the government, which must look after the country's energy needs while maintaining stability.

The government is mindful of the potentially destabilising effect of constant reports of mining disasters and has waged campaign after campaign to try to regulate the industry and boost safety, but has been unable to stop the rising number of deaths.

China also has the highest number of coal miners with chest problems - most notably, black lung disease. The name comes from the distinctive blue-black marbling of the lung from the coal dust accumulation.

There are sound political reasons for encouraging safer mines and healthier miners. The last thing the Communist Party wants is civic unrest because unscrupulous mine- owners are making a fast buck at the expense of safety. The government has promised to shut down the smaller, illegal mines country-wide as part of a campaign to make the industry safer and more efficient.

An editorial on the state-run Xinhua news agency pointed the finger at corrupt local officials. "One of the reasons for the frequency of these mining disasters is abuse of authority by officials," it said. "They accept bribes and abuse their power to protect companies doing illegal acts. They are blinded by lust for gain, and negligent of workers' lives."

The coal industry represents a dilemma for the ruling Communist Party - how do you keep people working and provide enough energy for the factories while steering the country away from the old, dangerous, polluting industries? Shanxi's provincial governor, Yu Youjun, has promised to stop expanding the industry in Shanxi, and focus instead on upgrading existing facilities. "We cannot continue the rough way of development any more," Yu says, "and must limit coal production strictly with the guidance of the scientific concept of development."

Shanxi is closing collieries with annual output of below 90,000 tons, considered more prone to accidents and wastage, and is pushing the large remaining ones to use more advanced, eco-friendly technology. As part of Yu's campaign, 4,800 illegal mines have already been shut and 1,200 people, including some 60 officials who were found to have invested in coal mines, have been punished.

And efforts to improve the lives of those who work below the ground have taken on a high profile. Premier Wen Jiabao, who is proud of his man-of-the-people image, has himself donned a miner's hat and gone 1,300 metres underground, where he shook hands with miners and ate a lunch of dumplings. A former mining engineer, he has also visited grieving families after mining disasters, and tearfully told officials to leave no stone unturned in "learning lessons drawn in blood".

(*) As pointed out in our China coverage last week, a spokesperson for the Chinese regime has admitted to China Labour Bulletin that the true figure is closer to 20,000 dead [see:]

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