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Don't Stop Mine Overhaul
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Another serious mining accident has taken place in the country's biggest coal production base of Shanxi Province in north China. The story is one that is becoming sadly all too familiar: a cover-up by the private mine owner and the exposure of serious loopholes in safety management.

A preliminary investigation has put the number of miners trapped under the flooded shaft at 57. But the owner of the mine in the county of Zuoyun, more than 200 kilometers north of the provincial capital Taiyuan, first claimed that a mere five miners were trapped. Relatives of those trapped miners were even evacuated to the neighboring Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region lest they reveal the truth to the press and higher authorities.

Overhauls of small and unsafe coal mines have been conducted many times. Xinhua News Agency reported in January that more than 4,000 illegal coal mines had been closed in Shanxi during the past five years and that the illegal mining of coal had basically been checked. The story revealed that more than 900 local government officials had been found to have investments in coal mines and that most of them had withdrawn their shares.

Xinjing Coal Mine, the scene of this latest tragedy, has an annual production capacity of 90,000 tons. It therefore cannot be considered a small mine, but it clearly has problems in terms of production safety and management. The fact that no managers could tell exactly how many miners were under the shaft clearly suggests that its management is in chaos.

But how could such a mine survive these repeated overhauls? If safety inspections truly guaranteed that every one of the thousands of pits was investigated, there is no way that this one could have slipped through the net. But there is a possibility that the mine may have been closed down in the overhauls, but later resumed production.

A report revealed that around 3,000 mines with an annual production capacity below 90,000 tons continue operating across the province. The fact that many continue to send miners underground after overhauls explains why the provincial authorities have failed to make good on their pledge to close down all unsafe coal mines.

Those who have interest in keeping local coal mines open are fighting a guerrilla war with the watchdogs, including some local officials.

Although those small and unsafe mine were closed by local government whenever there was an overhaul, they soon resumed production when the campaign concluded.

This most serious accident this year is an opportunity for a thorough investigation to find out how this mine survived repeated overhauls, which officials from the local government should be held responsible, and whether local officials have an interest in this mine.

All of the results need to be announced and all of those responsible should be penalized.

Transparency in handling this accident and due punishment of those held accountable will deter others from doing the same.

(China Daily May 23, 2006)

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