In China: energy needs vs. mine safety

Beijing announced a series of reforms Tuesday to improve safety in the world's deadliest mines.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It's the deadliest job in China, sending hundreds of thousands of workers underground each day to dig coal from mines that one labor-rights group has labeled slaughterhouses.

The flooding of a coal mine in Guizhou Province just last week is the latest in an almost constant string of accidents in China. Such mishaps, along with the renewed attention to mining safety in the United States, has built momentum here for action by authorities.

Yet even as the Chinese government pledges more strict safety regulations - vowing again this week to reduce the country's staggering annual count of nearly 6,000 coal-mining deaths - demand is increasing for energy production in the world's fastest-growing major economy. With greater demand comes not safer mines, activists and researchers warn, but bigger, deadlier disasters.

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"They have difficulties enforcing the [current] regulations even on the big State mines, where the recent massive disasters have taken place," says Tim Wright, a professor at England's University of Sheffield, who has researched and written extensively on Chinese coal-mining. "The incentive to cut corners is increased with the high price and strong demand for coal."

Coal production in China has surged from less than 1 billion tons in 2000 to around 2 billion tons last year, according to the World Coal Institute. Already, the toll is extracted from miners. While the government reported that overall coal-mining deaths, 5,986 in 2005, were down slightly from the 6,027 recorded a year earlier, the disasters have grown larger in scale, according to the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, a human-rights group that campaigns for Chinese workers.

"Major disasters involving heavy loss of life have just shot up," says Robin Munro, the group's research director. "It's in direct correlation to profits and production. They're ignoring safety in the interest of bringing the coal up to the surface."

Among other measures, Mr. Munro's group advocates worker-safety committees so miners have some say in their safety, and that the Chinese government increase mandatory family compensation from companies when workers are killed. Currently, the family of a mine worker might receive anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to $2,400 in compensation. Hence, Munro says, it's cheaper to let miners, who might earn roughly $150 each month, take deadly risks.

"One of the main problems right now is that miners' lives are simply too cheap," says Munro. "The mines don't have to make safety a priority."

On Tuesday, Premier Wen Jiabao outlined new measures designed to improve safety. Among them:

• Beijing will require money to be set aside for compensation for injured or killed miners.

• Evaluations of government officials will now include a consideration of work-safety records. Worker advocates have long argued that safety rules set in Beijing are not well-enforced by local officials.

• Large coal mining firms will be encouraged to merge with smaller ones, as bigger operations tend to pay more attention to safety. About 20,000 of China's 28,000 mines are small, privately owned, and less well-policed ventures.

Whether the new measures help may turn heavily on whether they are actually enforced. Critics contend that the existing, more basic laws, are not.

While news of January's coal-mine disasters that killed 14 people in the US rang out with a sense of shock, similar reports trickle in every month from China's coal fields. (The United States Mine Rescue Association maintains a list at www.usmra.com/chinatable.htm.)

Many of the accidents could have been prevented with basic safety procedures. Chinese media are rife with examples of stingy bosses shutting off gas alarms and failing to fix rail cars that toss sparks into combustible air.

So why did US mining deaths garner so much attention while China's deadly mines continue on? Heavy domestic media coverage of Chinese coal-mining disasters, which began in the past five years, may not be helping, Munro speculates.

"If you publicize a problem but do nothing about it, what you produce is compassion fatigue. You get a lot of reports about these disasters, but nothing ever changes," says Munro. "Just publicity by itself is not nearly enough."

Coal-mine safety wasn't always so lopsided on the global scale. The US has had a low fatality record in recent decades, but it recorded an average of more than 2,000 coal-mine deaths annually from 1900-45, and the number of fatalities never dropped below 1,000 in a year until 1946.

Hoping to draw on some of the lessons learned abroad, experts are seeking help on mine safety from nations with experience. In one instance, Mr. Wright is working on a program to share training expertise with China from the now-defunct South Yorkshire coal industry.

For now, mine-safety inspections here are lacking and often far from objective. Thousands of small mines have complicated financial backing, which has been unraveled with often disturbing results. In one case, after a deadly mine accident, it was revealed that the safety inspector who gave the operation a clean bill of health a month earlier was also the mine's owner. Other cases involve corruption and bribery, with government officials taking money in exchange for passable safety reports.

The state workers' safety agency has lauded officials for closing more than 5,000 shafts last year for safety violations. However, a government audit of those orders found that only 40 percent of those ordered to stop mining actually had.

The estimated 3 million people who work in China's coal-mining industry need the jobs.

"Nobody works in the mine unless they have virtually no other option," Munro says.

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