Coal mine accidents in the past four months have claimed hundreds of lives, with three major incidents each killing more than 100 miners. The death toll in the February 14 gas explosion at Sunjiawan alone reached 214.
The State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) recently reported that of the 2.0 billion tons of coal produced last year, only 1.2 billion tons were produced under conditions that met prescribed national safety standards. This means that nearly 40 percent of the nation's coal output in 2004 was mined under unsafe conditions.
Behind these figures is China's rising coal consumption, accompanied by skyrocketing prices. Coal accounts for 67 percent of the nation's primary energy consumption. In an effort to meet demand, coal production was pushed up by 200 million tons a year from 2001 to 2004.
Because no new mines were opened between 1996 and 2002, the increase in output has relied largely on general over-production.
It will take some 51.8 billion yuan (US$6.3 billion) to bring safety systems and equipment in line with national standards, according to SAWS.
About one in three of the country's key coal mines have been in operation for 50 years. These aging and dilapidated mines must resort to excessive digging or over-production to maintain production. Many of them use obsolete equipment, a third of which should have been retired.
SAWS chief Wang Xianzheng admitted that most coal mines, including some large state-owned ones, are weak in terms of occupational safety. They are especially unprepared for serious accidents.
Unlike the highly mechanized opencast mining widely used in the US and Australia, the majority of China's coal is excavated by workers down in the pits. Only 45 percent of the industry is mechanized, meaning that huge numbers of miners must face such menaces as poisonous gas, coal dust, floods and fire.
For many state owned coal mines, gas extraction systems are their Achilles' heel. SAWS indicates that 40 percent of all the state-owned coal mines that have high gas density have not been equipped with gas extraction systems. Their safety systems are limited to monitoring, with no prevention or control capabilities.
Following the recent spate of accidents, SAWS has ordered 51.8 billion yuan (US$6.3 billion) to be spent over the next three years to improve mine safety. Mines that are low producers or deemed unfit for upgrading will be closed down.
Funds will come from the industry itself as well as from the government.
According to a recent circular jointly issued by SAWS, the Ministry of Finance and the National Development and Reform Commission, 2 to 10 yuan (US$0.24 to 1.2) will be withheld from the cost of every ton of coal produced for deposit into a mine safety fund. If properly executed, 7 to 8 billion yuan (US$845 to 966 million) will be collected every year from the state-owned mines alone.
The Shenhua Group, China's largest coal producer, has seen its 800 million yuan (US$96.6 million) investment in safety pay off. The fatality rate per million tons at its major mines was just 0.01, well below the average even for developed countries.
The death rate for China's mines overall is nearly 4.0 per million tons.
(Beijing Youth Daily, translated by Wind Gu for China.org.cn, February 24, 2005)