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Tuesday, November 18, 1997 Published at 22:24 GMT


China's deadly mining industry

It's not a proud flag flying over China's coal mines

China is under pressure to improve the safety of its coal mines, if the much-needed industry is to survive. China cannot do without coal, a resource which is high in demand.

But last week, there was yet another mine blast disaster which claimed 89 lives when a gas explosion ripped through a mine in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui.

It is just the latest catastrophe to hit China's troubled coal mining industry.

Coal provides around 70% of China's energy needs, and in a country boasting one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world, energy is an urgently needed resource.

But the high demand for coal is putting pressure on a mining industry already notorious for its poor safety record.

The number of how many people are killed in China's mines every year remains a mystery. In the early 1980s, such figures were a state secret. In recent years, the government has acknowledged an annual death toll in the region of 10,000 people in coal and other mines. However, this number is believed to be an underestimate.

Many of the deaths take place in small mines operated privately or by local governments, a part of the industry which has expanded in the last 20 years.

According to official reports, most small mines are poorly supervised and lack basic safety equipment. To avoid reprisals by the government, operators are reluctant to report accidents.

The officially-acknowledged death toll is higher than the total number of people killed annually in mining accidents anywhere else in the world put together. And it is greater than the average number of people killed by floods in China, which every year sweep across vast swathes of territory populated by millions of people.

Initial reports in China's official media have not made clear whether the latest mining disaster occurred in a state-owned or a private mine. Officials have given very few details, but it is clear the government's repeated warnings to mine operators to tighten safety procedures are going unheeded.

Many of the smaller mines are not licensed. Often their owners order the random digging of tunnels on the edges of state-owned coal fields.

One official report described conditions in such pits as similar to those in the mines of 18th century Britain. The government has estimated that the industry should have as many as 500,000 safety inspectors. At present it has only a few thousand experts, responsible to inspect more than 200,000 mines.

The risks to which Chinese miners are exposed to are not only obvious dangers such as explosions and pit collapses.

Many mines do nothing to control dust. The government acknowledges that another 10,000 miners die of lung diseases every year in addition to those killed in accidents.

The government has promised to sack managers of mines where more than 10 people are killed. But such threats are far from adequate. Unlike state-owned coal mines, which are saddled by huge financial burdens because of relatively high wages and a large number of retired staff to care for, the smaller mines use cheap migrant labour and have few overhead costs.

It seems that as long as China's economy booms, such mines will be able to make ready profits and unfortunately, the pursuit of profit regulations often ignored.

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