Chinese Mine Accidents Result of Ambition

A pair of accidents that killed more than 300 miners has underscored the human price China (search) pays for its booming economy and ravenous appetite for coal, an industry that's seen more than 4,500 workers killed on the job this year.

In the country's most recent disaster, rescuers on Wednesday raised the death toll to 166 following a weekend explosion at a mine in central China. The death toll earlier had been 65 with 101 missing.

It was China's worst coal mine accident (search) since a fire in 2000 killed 162 in southern China's Guizhou (search) province, and it came just weeks after another major accident, an Oct. 20 explosion that killed 148 workers in another central China mine.

The world's biggest coal producer, China churned out 1.6 billion tons of coal in the first 10 months of the year — up 19 percent from the same period last year.

But fires, explosions, floods and other accidents killed 4,153 coal miners in the first nine months of this year, according to the government, though it said that figure was 13 percent below the death toll from the same period last year. Including deaths more recent accidents, the number of miners killed this year is more than 4,500.

The government says China accounted for 80 percent of the world's coal mining deaths last year even though it produced only 35 percent of its coal.

The high number of deaths suggests that China's soaring demand for energy is undercutting efforts to increase safety measures and reduce the carnage in the country's mines.

"It's created a wonderful opportunity for people to run more illegal mines — and more dangerously," said Stephen Frost, a researcher on labor issues at Hong Kong's City University. "People are ignoring licensing, reopening closed mines. Mines are woefully equipped, the workers are not skilled in the least and management is often appalling."

Despite government efforts to shift to cleaner natural gas and other power sources, coal still supplies two-thirds of China's total energy and generates 80 percent of its electricity, taking a heavy toll on the country's environment and public health.

Some 600,000 miners have black lung, a debilitating condition caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. That figure is growing by 70,000 miners a year

Coal smoke from factories and household hearths hangs over the suburbs of even modern cities like Shanghai, coating the landscape in a film of black.

Officials say China will rely on coal for at least half of its energy for the next 30 to 50 years.

Up until 2000, the government was forcing smaller, inefficient mines to close in hopes of pushing up prices and protecting bigger producers amid a glut in supply.

But roaring economic growth, expected to remain at about 9 percent for 2004, has boosted demand. Last summer, the government ordered emergency shipments to meet shortages in urban areas, and many of the small, unsafe mines were reopened.

Higher profits for producers hasn't meant better working conditions for miners, most of whom are minimally educated migrants from rural villages.

Though Chinese factories powered by coal increasingly are showcases for 21st century technology, mines are often little changed from the 19th century. Many are little more than hillside pits.

"You can say that our country has the most dangerous mines in the world," Wang Deming, a mine safety expert, told the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily.

The average Chinese miner produces 321 tons of coal per year — just 2.2 percent of a U.S. miner's output, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The fatality rate — measured per 100 tons of coal produced — was 100 times that of U.S. mines.

Wang blamed lack of automation, poor equipment, unskilled workers and low spending on technology.

Though safety problems are said to be the worst at smaller mines, the recent rash of accidents has involved several larger ones.

The state-owned Chenjiashan — where the 166 miners were killed — on the hardscrabble North China plateau has 3,400 employees and produces 2.3 million tons of coal a year, according to Xinhua.

The mine suffers fires every three to six months, and Xinhua said a gas explosion in 2001 killed 38 people.

China said in 2000 that it was setting up its first nationwide network of mine safety inspectors. Since then, it says it has spent $500 million on helping mines to prevent gas explosions.

Coal mining by nature is hazardous. In China, it's made more perilous by a system that puts local officials who profit from mine operations in charge of enforcing safety regulations. The system also bans independent trade unions that have successfully pushed for better safety in other countries.

In Australia, for example, laws require two escape routes in mines, said Ricki Jeffery, a mine safety expert at Australia's Central Queensland University.

Even well-equipped mines in China lack such basic precautions.

"If there is an accident, there's very little chance of escape," Jeffery said.