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Guangdong Shuts Down Coal Mines for Checks

While thankful he did not meet the same grim fate as those trapped in Daxing Coal Mine, Luo Dingjie yesterday was contemplating an uncertain future.

The 25-year-old had been working for two years at another coal mine in Xingning but after the Daxing disaster, his mine stopped operations.

The Guangdong provincial government has ordered all coal mines in the province to shut down for safety inspections in wake of the tragedy.

"Most of my fellow workers have started going back to their hometowns," Luo, from the neighbouring province of Jiangxi, told China Daily at a bus station in Huanghuai Town as he waited to go home.

According to Luo, there are more than 500 miners from Jiangxi Province and thousands from other provinces working in mines in Xingning, an important coal producing centre in Guangdong Province.

For miners in Xingning like Luo, the biggest issue now is work safety.

"This is the most terrible coal mine accident we have ever seen, and we cannot work here until we are sure preventable accidents will not occur," said a downcast Luo.

The local government has not revealed the exact number of coal mines in Xingning but, according to Luo, there are about 10 mines in Xingning's Huanghuai Town alone.

"As far as I know, almost all mines here are privately-owned and have no production and safety licences," said Luo.

The local government admits Daxing Coal Mine had been operating for years without a production licence.

Xingning residents now fear for their livelihood.

"What can we do if they shut down the mines for good? I have been working in the mine here for many years. I don't know what else to do," said one man who has been a miner for more than 15 years.

Many are now prepared for the worst.

"I will have to go and find a job in another city. Mining here is basically finished," said another local miner.

Meanwhile, a local shopkeeper, Zeng, is fretting about his business a grocery shop he opened 11 years ago. "A great number of miners used to buy things in my shop. I don't know how I will manage.

"Some of those trapped in Daxing Coal Mine had become friends. Now, I may never see them again."

How many more must die in perilous mines?

The Daxing Mine disaster of August 7 that has left at least 123 workers trapped underground demonstrates that we have not learned our lesson despite the string of deadly mining accidents over the last few years.

The government has obviously not been supervising mines seriously. The Daxing Mine was found to be operating without necessary production licences and continuing to run even after the Guangdong provincial government issued an order to suspend production at all local mines in the wake of the tragedy on July 14 in the same city of Xingning that killed 14 miners.

Many local governments rely heavily on coal mines as a source of revenue, so they tend to turn a blind eye to safety in dangerous mines. Some crooked local officials and their relatives even have personal stakes in mines.

Mine owners are sure they will be shielded by their local governments, knowing all too well how the system works.

They are not interested in investing in safety equipment as this costs much more than paying off the families of the dead.

The mayors of Meizhou and Xingning, where the Daxing Mine is located, have been relieved of their posts, but more severe punishments need to be handed out so that officials dare not shirk their responsibilities by risking the lives of poor miners to fatten local government coffers.

The mine owners should also be dealt with severely so that no one flouts safety laws in future. The message should be sent loud and clear -- you will not get away with simply writing a meagre cheque for the victims' families.

Severe punishments will not only be a warning for Guangdong Province, but for the nation as a whole.

China produces 35 per cent of the world's coal but accounts for 80 per cent of the world's coal mine deaths. The fatality rate is much higher than in India and South Africa, and 100 times that in the United States.

With 6,027 workers killed in floods, explosions and fires last year, China's coal mines claimed 2,672 lives in the first half of this year -- a rise of 3.3 per cent over the same period last year.

It is true that China depends on coal for two-thirds of its energy consumption, which drives its rapid industrialization and economic growth, but growth should not be fuelled by casting aside the rights and even lives of miners. No one should presume that loss of life is unavoidable in the pursuit of economic growth.

The government needs to show determination to make mines adhere to safety standards. A figure cannot be put on human life, so safety must be ensured whatever the cost.

We need to find out how many mines do not meet safety standards yet are still employing miners in appalling conditions. We need to protect the rights of miners, who are often farm workers exploited by profit-driven mine owners. We need to make sure safety equipment and proper management are in place.

An investigation of 45 key State-owned mines since April this year has found 3,200 possible triggers for disasters. We certainly should not wait to tackle these problems just because these mines produce badly-needed coal.

The Xingning disaster also shows us how ill prepared our rescue operations are. Pumps have to be shipped from neighbouring Jiangxi Province to draw water from the flooded colliery, taking up to two days -- too long for those trapped 480 metres underground.

Horrific mine disasters are not going to stop unless we address fundamental safety problems now.

(China Daily August 11, 2005)

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