The Tragedy of China’s Coal Industry

The United States has been grimly transfixed since August 6 by the deaths of six coal miners killed in the state of Utah and the subsequent death of three more miners who tried to rescue them. Hour-by-hour reports have been issued on national television networks, and opposition has been building in the US Congress to the entire coal industry.

But while that drama plays itself out in the US, China, with far too many local officials with financial stakes in coal mines, has long outstripped the rest of the world for underground deaths. By one estimate, 13 miners die every day in China. Officials put the deaths at 4,726 in 2006, although the Beijing Times earlier this year estimated that more than 7,000 miners were killed the same year in mine explosions, cave-ins, and flooding, compared to 43 who died in the United States during the same year. So far, officially, 1,792 miners have died in 1,066 mishaps in the first half of 2007.

The latest disaster occurred Saturday, with at least 181 miners missing and feared dead near the city of Xintai in northeastern China after a rain-swollen river flooded two coal mines. Officials said the miners had “only slim chances of survival,” according to the official Xinhua news agency. Other miners were trapped in mines throughout the region. According to one story, rescue officials were pouring milk down an 800-meter ventilation tube to still-trapped miners to catch in their hats because they had had nothing to eat for 76 hours.

Antiquated mines, lack of training and poor equipment are only part of the problem. Even after years of trying to clean up the situation, too many local officials find it lucrative to be involved in one of the country’s fastest growing industries. Outraged officials in Beijing have issued directive after directive, demanding that the coal industry be cleaned up. But they have been issuing similar directives for decades.

In 2005, after a deadly accident at the Daxing Mine in Guangdong’s Xingning city took at least 123 lives, for example, they issued a directive ordering government officials to withdraw their investments in coal mines. By September of that year, 497 government officials and state-owned enterprise officials had backed away from their investments.

Yet, a year later, according to Chen Changzhi, China’s vice minister of supervision, another 270 officials had received administrative or disciplinary punishment and 45 others had been transferred for violating the edict. For example, Li Guojun, vice-director of the Kaiping Branch of the Bureau of Public Security in Tangshan, who invested 500,000 yuan in a local mine in 2002, received 600,000 in bonuses in three years, according to a 2006 story in China Daily.

The crackdowns have had an effect, with many local officials indeed registering their ownership and getting out. Nonetheless, an inspection team in Shanxi earlier this year found that provincial officials had shut down only half of the 80 mines that were ordered closed. In Chongqing, of 174 mines ordered closed last year only 33 have been shut down. Local officials very clearly remain immersed in the coal business.

In Zhangjiachang in Shanxi Province, where 56 miners were killed on May 18 in the Xinjing Coal Mine disaster, Liu Yongxin, the township head, and Ching Rui, the Communist Party secretary, were both given long prison terms for negligence, abuse of power and bribery. In 2006, more than 100 local officials were arrested and punished for complicity in coal mining accidents.

At the base of this is a money-spinning business built on the backs of poorly paid, poorly equipped and poorly trained miners that has been growing exponentially to meet China’s appetite for energy. It is a direct trade-off for environmental and human disaster. According to the World Bank, Linfen in Shanxi Province has been named the world’s most polluted city as a result of coal mining.

China consumes more coal than Europe, Japan and the United States combined, accounting for 75 percent of the country’s primary energy consumption. Coal production, according to a study prepared by Yang Yang, a George Mason University graduate student for the China Environment Forum, has increased by 66 percent in five years. Some 30,000-odd mines are registered, 25,000 of them small and out-dated. Thousands more are unregistered By one estimate, 90 percent of the rise in world coal consumption is taking place in China, and will continue to do so for the next two decades despite the government’s attempts to clean up its environment and move to alternative sources of energy.

These attempts are often thwarted by local officials. Coal mining is delivering up an environmental disaster, according to Yang’s study. Coal and iron mines in Northern China, she writes, discharge 1.2 billion tonnes of wastewater every year, 70 percent of that going untreated into rivers. Reporters who have attempted to describe the environmental disaster have often been beaten or killed.

Local officials allegedly have received huge payments for their willful neglect of safety standards. According to a 2004 report in the Standard of Hong Kong, illicit funds totaling 1.5 billion yuan turned up in local officials’ bank accounts following the Daxing Mine disaster. One policeman, whose monthly salary was 2,000 yuan, was found to possess 20 million yuan, the Standard reported. As the Standard’s story noted, the directive ordering officials out of the coal mining business delivered up the quandary of their having to explain how they had got into the business in the first place.

By and large, they got into the business not through investment but through bribery from mining companies to allow the mines to operate without having to bother with safety regulations. Most of the 25,000 small mines are woefully out of date, with few possessing any mechanized equipment. It is picks, shovels and dynamite. Investment in research and miner training are insignificant. Over-exploitation by multiple companies of rich coal seams has led to frequent accidents and excessive pollution. By the end of 2008, according to the US-based mining publication, the government will require that only one company will be allowed to exploit each mine in an effort to reduce accidents and control pollution.

But until China can make real progress getting its officials out of the mining business so that safety and environmental officials can put dangerous and polluting mines out of business, the death toll will continue to rise.