Illegal mining, lax supervision overshadow China's efforts to reduce "blood-stained" coal

10:27, December 11, 2010      

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Wei Baoyuan, deputy head of Mianchi County in central China's Henan Province, was abruptly interrupted when he began flaunting the county government's achievements in improving the work safety of coal mines at a work conference whose purpose was to reflect on a recent fatal gas blast in a mine in Mianchi.

"Please stop praising yourself. If you've done a commendable job, why did the accident happen?" asked Liu Guoji, an official with the provincial discipline inspection commission, and also one of the investigators probing the accident.

Twenty-six miners were killed Tuesday in the gas explosion at the Juyuan Coal Mine in Mianchi, which is being merged into the Yi Ma Coal Industry Group, a state-owned conglomerate in Henan.

As the mine's assets have not yet been transferred, its ownership has not changed.

The blast was reportedly the third such accident occurring at a coal mine undergoing mergers and acquisitions in Henan this year.

Since March this year, Henan, the fourth largest coal-producing province in China, has launched a massive campaign of mergers and acquisitions of coal mines, as promoted by the central government to boost the efficient use of resources and reduce work safety risks in the coal mining industry.

In the first eleven months, 237 people in Henan were killed in coal mine accidents, up 60 percent year on year.

Through industrial restructuring, Henan has planned to reduce the number of coal mine companies to about 50, whose every shaft has an annual production capacity of no less than 150,000 tonnes of coal, by early 2011.

However, the efforts have been partly undermined by some owners of small coal mines who defied the order to halt production before the mergers and acquisitions are accomplished, as well as by the supervision loopholes possibly caused by the collusion between mine owners and corrupt local officials.

"It has been pressing to solve work safety problems in such small coal mines under regrouping," said Niu Senying, head of the Henan Provincial Administration of Coal Mine Safety.


Dong Xiaozhao, a young miner who had only worked at the Juyuan Coal Mine for three days when the accident occurred, survived the close encounter with death.

Dong told Xinhua that he heard a big "bang" and saw heavy smoke soon after he descended into the shaft.

Dong said he tried to contact other miners trapped deeper in the shaft via interphone, but failed to receive any response. He then escaped from the mine, carrying an injured miner on his back.

An initial investigation, jointly conducted by the provincial work safety watchdog, police officials and discipline inspection authorities, showed the mine was not granted permission to mine at the site where the accident occurred.

The investigators also found the mine had been digging coal out of its own minefield for years and the map of the shaft provided by the mine managers was forged.

Moreover, the mine had been closed for workplace renovations as part of the merger, and its operation should not have resumed before safety hazards were dealt with.

On the day of the accident, the mine owner, surnamed Suo, ordered miners to work in the mine, when a supervisor sent into the mine by Yi Ma Coal Industry Group was having a one-month training course 200 km away in Jiaozuo City.

After the accident, Suo allegedly concealed the bodies of four victims in the shaft and fled. He is now being interrogated after being detained by police.

Suo's practice is not exclusive in China, a country relying heavily on coal, which supplies 80 percent of its electricity.

As the campaign of consolidating mines has been launched in China's major coal-rich regions of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan, Shandong and Inner Mongolia, the country's coal output was temporarily reduced.

As a result, coal prices have been pushed up, especially in the winter when coal is needed for heating.

Lured by profits, some small mines, like Juyuan which is under workplace renovation, secretly resumed operations.

Juyuan, which annually produced 150,000 tonnes of coal, could earn a monthly profit of at least two million yuan (300,400 U.S. dollars) if it was put into full operation.


After the accident, mine managers first reported that only 20 miners were trapped when the blast occurred. But the number jumped to 46 as more bodies were found by rescuers a couple of hours later. < While the investigators were struggling to figure out the exact number of trapped miners, Zhao Xuanming, who was familiar with the situation, kept silent.

Zhao, an official assigned by the county government to supervise safety conditions of the Juyuan Coal Mine, also failed to quickly report the accident to higher authorities.

He, too, was detained by police, and investigators believe there was a high likelihood of collusion between Zhao and the mine owner.

Moreover, the coal mining industry was playing a crucial role in the economic development of some counties, and production suspension of small coal mines shrank fiscal revenues of the county governments.

Investigators said local governments' over-reliance on the coal industry would easily lead to loopholes in safety supervision.

Also, executives with the Yi Ma Coal Industry Group, Juyuan's prospective parent company, admitted that they failed to properly supervise Juyuan's safety conditions.

Wu Yulu, president of the Yi Ma Coal Industry Group, said the group was merging 79 coal mines, but all of them had not yet transferred their assets.

Wu said those mines had various problems in terms of technology, equipment and management, and Juyuan needed no less than a year to remove all the safety hazards and meet the national standards for production safety.

According to the statistics provided by the coal mine safety agency of Shanxi, to produce the same amount of coal, a small coal mine would claim 10 times more lives of its miners than a large coal mine.

In 2009, a total of 2,631 people died in coal mine accidents in China.

Zhang Guobao, head of the National Energy Administration, said China would have 10 mega coal mine companies, each with an annual production capacity of over 100 million tonnes of coal by 2015.

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