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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December 2004, 01:42 GMT
China's miners pay for growth
Mary Hennock
BBC News business reporter

An elderly miner awaits news of his son-in-law at the Chenjiashan disaster
The 166 deaths at Chenjiashan grabbed headlines
China's vibrant economic growth is built on coal, the source of two thirds of the country's electricity.

Digging out that coal cost the lives of 15 miners a day in the first nine months of this year, official accident figures show.

China's leaders are now grappling with a predicament - how to speed up coal output, ending the chronic power shortages that caused blackouts in 24 provinces last summer, whilst improving mine safety.

The country's worst mining disaster for a decade has taken safety up the agenda. After 166 workers died in the Chenjiashan explosion in November, the State Council ordered an inquiry and newspaper editorials called for a more humane and balanced view of economic progress.

A typical editorial in China Daily said the authorities should pursue "more serious actions for safety despite an energy shortage".

Deadly risks

China has two kinds of mines: big, state-run mines, which are generally thought to be safer, and smaller private mines where the majority of deaths occur.

"They're technically illegal, but they also have certificates. They pay money and get a licence," says film-director Li Yang, who spent 18 months making a film, Blind Shaft, set in small, private mines.

1995 - 5,990 dead
2002 - 5791 dead
2004 year to Sept - 4153
Sources: Official figures; IEA and China Labour Bulletin

During filming, he lived in half a dozen mines and spent 50 hours underground. He counts himself "lucky" to have been asleep in the pithead dormitories when a roof collapse killed two miners.

The response was matter-of-fact. "They cleared up the debris, cleared the shaft, treated it no differently from a traffic accident."

Miners had helmets and lamps, but most wore soft rubber boots. He never saw steel toe-caps. Ear mufflers? He laughs at the question. "They had no training."

Miners worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, earning roughly 1000 yuan ($120; 62) a month. Pay was linked to how much coal they cut.

Gas is the biggest killer, but miners often carried on working "even when it's close to the warning level", says Li Yang.

Local corruption

Small private mines flourish where the coal seams are too narrow to be cut by machinery, but China's insatiable demand for coal creates a market for every lump.

Local governments often prefer to sell the licences and collect profit-based fees or taxes than run the mines themselves.

Chinese miner
Small mines are often remote and hard to regulate

"They have very little regard for anyone's safety - there's signals out there that no matter how much coal they produce they can sell it so they're trying to jack up production as much as possible," says Jeffrey Logan, a senior energy analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Beijing's solution is to consolidate the industry into 13 large companies, according to an official with the influential National Development and Reform Commission. The plan will "ensure stable supplies and safety", China Daily quoted him as saying.

Similar plans have been tried before, and failed.

A national drive to shut illegal mines in late 1990s had only a brief impact.

The State Administration of Work Safety has repeatedly ordered vigorous safety checks, and last year it imposed a record 21m yuan fine after 72 died in one explosion.

"Many mines simply wait until inspections are finished or officials leave the area and then they reopen," a report by China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong based workers rights group found.

Surging demand

China's coal output rose 15% in each of the last two years because of strong demand, says Mr Logan.

Big state-run mines are supposed to have safety staff always on duty, but demand for coal seems to lowering standards.

3 June: Mine blast in Hebei province initially reported to kill one. Chinese media now say 14 died and 16 officials are being prosecuted for a cover-up
20 Oct: Gas explosion at Daping mine in Henan province kills 148 - believed the deadliest accident in four years
12 Nov: Gas blast at Xinsheng mine in Henan province leaves 29 dead
20 Nov: Fire breaks out at iron ore mine in Hebei province, killing 68
28 Nov: Gas blast at Chenjiashan mine in Shaanxi province kills 166 - the worst disaster for 10 years
2 Dec: Explosion at mine in Guizhou province kills 16

The Chenjiashan disaster paints a vivid picture of managerial impunity. It had reportedly failed a safety test days before the explosion, and had frequent fires. Relatives of the dead blame managers' pursuit of a 400,000 yuan bonus for beating output targets.

The overall impact of government policies, combined with China's not-quite market economy is to limit investment in bigger, more controllable mines while encouraging a free-for-all.

Coal prices have risen - to between $32-40 a ton at the industry benchmark depot in Qinhuangdao - but prices paid by power generators are much lower.

The result is that state-owned mines are "starved for investment" and unable to expand or improve efficiency, said Mr Logan.

A move away from coal is not on the cards, though use of hydro and nuclear power is growing. China is the world's biggest coal producer - 1.8bn tons in 2004 - with the third biggest reserves globally.

The IEA expects coal still to be providing 53% of China's energy by 2030.

And if economic growth stays on course, the IEA predicts China will account for 25% of the world's increase in electricity generation in the next 30 years.

Most observers, including labour rights activists, believe central government has tried hard to improve mine safety but they are not optimistic it can succeed.

"Central government can approach this with a policy towards the public good, whereas the local governments are concerned only about maximising their profits," says Mr Logan.

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