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Cost of China’s Coal: Miners’ Lives

Times Staff Writer

The grisly turn of events has become all too predictable: A disclosure that dozens, scores, sometimes hundreds of Chinese coal miners are trapped in a shaft deep underground. A grueling wait by family members. Allegations of safety violations and corruption amid calls for reform. Then a few weeks’ break until the next mining disaster hits.

On Monday, rescuers said heavy rains had forced them to suspend their search for 122 miners missing since Aug. 7, when millions of gallons of water flooded the Daxing mine in the southern province of Guangdong, trapping the men about 1,400 feet below the surface. Relatives have been asked for DNA samples to help identify any bodies recovered after long exposure to water, as hope faded that they would see their loved ones alive.

The latest deaths underscore the high human cost of China’s development and the many structural problems that make repeated disasters all but inevitable.

Daxing was opened in 1990 as a state-owned company, one of numerous smaller mines dotting the province. The government operation, no model of worker safety to begin with, exploited most of the easily recoverable fuel, then sold the mine to private buyers in 1999 for $625,000.

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To maximize profit, the new owners, led by company chairman Zeng Yungao, 38, reportedly cut safety standards and ramped up production. Pit bosses squeezed more than 50,000 tons from Daxing’s seams in the first half of this year, from a mine designed to produce 30,000 tons a year.

The disaster in the city of Xingning followed by three weeks a similar flooding in the Fusheng mine a few miles away. After the earlier accident killed 16 workers, wary Guangdong authorities ordered all smaller mines in the area to shut down pending an investigation. Daxing’s owners ignored the order, betting they wouldn’t get caught.

This “gambler’s mentality,” experts say, is a common feature these days in the industry and much of the Chinese economy.

In the hours immediately after the Daxing accident, as word spread that something was terribly wrong, the mine owners and managers fled. Only a government deadline accompanied by a veiled threat of serious punishment prompted their eventual sheepish return.

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The central government is now investigating allegations that local officials were partial owners of the mine, giving them a financial incentive to turn a blind eye as their own regulations were flouted. This involvement would not be unusual. An accident in March that saw 18 people die in a gas explosion in Heilongjiang province revealed that one of the owners wore a second hat as a local official in charge of mine safety.

The Daxing accident also has revealed serious flaws in the nation’s crisis management system. It took several days to bring pumps to the site and nearly a week to complete a draft plan on halting the flooding, which occurred when water broke through an abandoned wall of coal.

The delay reduced the chance of finding any survivors.

Relatives and friends of the trapped miners have descended on Xingning from neighboring provinces. Many are staying at the city’s state-owned Forestry Building hotel. One of them, Zhong Wenfeng, came to comfort his girlfriend, Li Meili, who lives in Hunan province. Her father and two brothers were trapped in the mine and were still missing Monday.

“The one sound we hear at the hotel is crying,” Zhong said. “Some of the families still hold out the slightest bit of hope. My girlfriend, who is pretty strong, sees almost no chance of seeing her relatives alive now. She’s just trying to comfort her mother.”

China’s statistics are anything but comforting. The nation produces 35% of the world’s coal but accounts for 80% of coal-mining deaths. That added up to 6,027 dead fathers, husbands and brothers last year. The rate of deaths relative to production is 10 times that of India, 30 times that of South Africa and 100 times that of the United States. “How Many More Must Die in Perilous Mines?” asked a recent headline in the government-run China Daily.

There are some small signs of improvement. Late last year, Beijing raised the ante by requiring mine owners to pay families $24,800 per accidental death. Previously, it had been far cheaper to pay them a few thousand dollars than invest in safety equipment.

Government and industry officials also are finding it more difficult to carry out coverups as China’s state-run media pay more attention to these disasters, spurring reform pressures.

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Still, many see these efforts as little more than political gestures. China desperately needs coal to fuel its booming economy, which gives pit bosses a huge incentive to turn off gas-detection equipment and otherwise cut corners on safety. Most owners offer no training. New employees often find themselves descending deep underground within an hour of being hired.

Furthermore, despite the risks there’s a seemingly endless supply of low-paid workers desperate for a job.

Most recruits are farmers with only a few years of schooling who consider the $120 monthly wage a fortune. Some even rationalize that, should the worst happen, they are worth more to their families dead than alive, experts say.

Government restrictions on labor strikes, work stoppages and other collective action, meanwhile, ensure that mine owners retain inordinate power. And even when the central government does crack down, vested interests find ways of blunting the effect at the grass roots.

“Local officials often warn the mine when safety inspections are coming and help them cover up problems,” said Hu Xingdou, economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “If miners try to raise safety concerns as individuals, meanwhile, they’re easily fired.”

Some estimate there are 20,000 illegal coal mines nationwide, though even that figure may be low, analysts say. Owners who manage to keep a mine going for six months, meanwhile, stand to make millions of dollars. According to the state-owned Outlook Weekly magazine, the profit margin for owners can hit 3,000% for those with good government contacts.

In recent days, the mayors of two cities around the Daxing mine have been relieved of their duties, while the mine’s owner, board chairman and chief engineer have been detained. And a few local officials have been disciplined.

Some observers, however, see little cause for optimism.

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“China’s economic development depends on these huge quantities of cheap labor and low health standards,” Hu said. “They may be able to keep the death rate in check, but it won’t decline much. I don’t see any fundamental change happening in the near future.”

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Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


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