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NE China Coal Mine Blast Another Lesson Drawn in Blood

Leaning on a wooden board that says, "Prioritizing Safety and Focusing on Quality," Qiu Rui waited outside the Haizhou mine, half-hoping that his father could return miraculously from the devastating gas explosion in Fuxin, a city in northeast China's Liaoning Province.

The 26-year-old was one of the grieving family members of the more than 200 victims of the accident.

The explosion took place 242 meters underground in the Sunjiawan colliery around 3:00 PM on Monday. Of the 574 miners on duty when the tragedy took place, only 330 escaped.

As of Friday afternoon, the confirmed death toll in the blast had reached 213, making it one of the deadliest mining accidents in Chinese history. Rescue and recovery teams had found the bodies of two of four miners that had been counted as missing, and had determined the location of the other two.

Family members of the victims have identified the remains of 175 of those killed, said Liu Guoqiang, deputy governor of Liaoning and a member of the team investigating the explosion.

According to the hospital affiliated with the state-owned Fuxin Coal Industry Group, which owns Sunjiawan, 29 miners were injured in the accident from carbon monoxide poisoning, burns and fractures.

Most of the injured were in stable condition, with the exception of three who had suffered compound fractures, according to hospital president Zhang Dayi.

Compensation for the families of the victims is being discussed, and payment from the company will be available after approval from the provincial government, local officials said.

The blast has aroused the intense concern of top Chinese leaders. President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice Premier Huang Ju all issued instructions concerning handling of the accident to the Liaoning provincial government.

A work team led by State Councilor Hua Jianmin arrived at the accident site Tuesday morning to coordinate rescue efforts and prepare compensation for the victims' families.

During the past five months, China has seen a number of fatal coal mine accidents and stained the "industry in black" with the blood of hundreds of miners.

Last October, a blast claimed 148 lives at the Daping coal mine in central China's Henan Province. Two months later, a similar accident killed 166 in Tongchuan, a city in northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

Twenty-four people were found responsible for the Daping tragedy, including Shi Jichuan, deputy governor of Henan Province. Prosecutors from Henan said the accident "could have been prevented if the officials involved had performed their duty."

Although the specific cause of Liaoning blast is still under investigation, a sudden gas leak is believed to be to blame. Gas reaching a density of higher than 12 percent against oxygen creates conditions for an explosion.

In the past, such blasts usually affected small, privately owned mines, particularly unlicensed ones. However, large state-owned enterprise groups with million-ton production capacity are reporting the explosions with greater frequency.

"There are still a lot of holes in safety management of coal mines throughout the country," said State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) Deputy Director Sun Huashan when discussing the Daping accident.

According to SAWS, about one-third of China's state-owned coal mines are overloaded, increasing the risks of accidents. Sun also blamed soaring demand for coal for pushing mining enterprises to overreach. China is the world's biggest consumer and producer of fossil fuel.

Mine operators' poor safety awareness and disregard for miners' lives constitute another major cause of accidents.

"To maximize profits and minimize costs, the mines are reluctant to invest more in work safety," said Li Dun, a prestigious sociologist at Beijing's Tsinghua University, in a previous interview.

A commentary appearing in the January issue of the Globe Magazine, an affiliate of the Xinhua News Agency, suggested that governments at all levels should pay closer attention to hidden systemic flaws that can lead to accidents, in addition to employing existing administrative surveillance measures.

The annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, will be held in March. It is widely believed that the safety and sustainable development of China's coal mining industry will be one of the most hotly discussed issues at the meeting.

(Xinhua News Agency, China Daily February 18, 2005)

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