20080312-COAL 551888115_1bbf7468e9.jpg China's coal mines are the most dangerous in the world even though the industry's safety record has improved in recent years as smaller, illegal mines have been closed.Chinese miners are 350 times more likely to die at their workplace than their American or British counterparts. In terms of production the statistics are even worse. In China there are 7.29 deaths per million tons of coal produced, compared to 0.04 deaths in the United States, 0.47 deaths in India, and 0.23 deaths in Poland. There are nearly as many fatalities a day (16) in Chinese mines as there are in U.S. mines in a year (22). Chinese officials acknowledge more than 2,000 coal mining deaths annually, compared with fewer than 50 in the United States.

China accounts for a third of the world’s coal production but forth-fifths of the world's coal mining deaths. Miners die in floods, gas explosions, fires, collapsing tunnels and from carbon monoxide poisoning. About 70 percent of the deaths occur in the small mines. In 2003, 6,700 people died in China’s mines, up from 6,121 in 2002. Many believe that many deaths go unreported and the true death toll could be over 10,000 a year. And this doesn’t count miners who die from black lung and other respiratory ailments.

Annual fatalities are now about one-third of the high of nearly 7,000 in 2002. According to the Chinese government 2,632 coal miners (seven miners a day) were killed in 2009, less than half the 6,995 (19.1 a day) who died in 2002, the most dangerous year in record. In 2010, 2,433 people died in coal mine accidents in China, according to official statistics (more than six workers per day). Labour rights groups, however, say the actual death toll is likely much higher, partly due to under-reporting of accidents as mine bosses seek to limit their economic losses and avoid punishment.

Recalling the scene after a gas explosion in a mine, one man old the Los Angeles Times, “I saw two people run out screaming, “The people at the bottom are done for.” Their faces were covered in black. Some of them were so shaken they kept throwing up and crying. Their brothers and uncles were still down below.” The next day he said, carts and pulleys normally used to bring up coal were used instead to bring up corpses.

Miners are also routinely injured and maimed on the job. Many have their arms broken, finger crushed and hands split open by picks. Other get their teeth knocked out or shoulders broken by falling rocks. Yet others suffer broken ribs, collapsed lungs and damaged internal organs when they are crushed by coal cars. In one family interviewed by the Los Angeles Times one son was killed in a mine accident; another lost his arm when it was jerked off his body by a runaway coal cart. Another had his shoulder shattered by falling rocks. Another sustained crushed ribs when floorboards collapsed.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration Report on Coal in China ; Worldwatch Article ; China and Coal TED Case Studies ; China Coal Resource ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Good Coal Mine Safety and Deaths: Article on Coal Mine Safety ; Few Coal Mine Deaths in 2009 Reuters ; China Mine Disaster Watch

On Energy and Electricity: U.S. Energy Information Administration Report on Energy in China ; U.S. Energy Information Administration Report on Electricity in China ;China Sustainable Energy Program ; China Energy Report pdf file ; Another Lengthy Energy China Report ; China Energy Production Statistics ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group)


Mining Companies, Deaths and Injuries in China

Mining companies routinely ignore safety equipment and procedures, exceed the number of miners allowed in the mines at one time to boost production far beyond what is safe. Even state-owned mines are dangerous. One miner in Datong told the New York Times, "Our mine is pretty safe. The owner knows that mine must be safe if it is to keep operating. Still, small accidents happen constantly. Doing such hard physical work at piece rates, it's unavoidable."

Lives are often lost when mine managers try to cover up accidents rather than launching immediate rescue operations. Mines were accidents occur often open right back up after media attention on the disaster starts to fade.

Efforts to close mines small have been hampered by local governments who rely on the mines for revenues and to provide employment.

Efforts to Improve Coal Mine Safety in China

Mines are much safer than they were in the mid 2000s. Huang Yi, the deputy administrator of a work safety agency, told the New York Times stricter scrutiny, regulations and the closing of 12,000 mines had cut the death rate by three-fourths since 2002. There are some illegal coal mines that still operate because they are protected by local officials, Huang said, but fewer and fewer. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 10, 2009]

China's government has repeatedly pledged to make the mining industry safer, but large-scale rescue successes remain relatively rare. In 2010, the government issued a policy that required six kinds of safety systems, including rescue facilities, to be installed in all coal mines within three years. But Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, argues that Beijing’s top-down approach can only do so much to make local officials more accountable. We don’t have the grass-roots democracy; we don’t have independent labor unions; we don’t have checks and balances; we don’t have any system of official accountability, he said.

Work-safety officials are trying to fill the gap with hot lines, a Web site link, and even rewards to informants. But in a country that relies on coal for most of its electricity, powerful financial incentives lie behind unsafe mines.

Beijing officials have tried for years to close illegal coal mines. But these days, illegal mining appears to be worse than ever. Accidents in illegal coal mines are frequent, and many victims' families keep silent after they receive some sort of compensation. According to a June report in The Beijing News, every coal mine in the area where Tong died has been officially closed by the local government. But in fact, the digging continues.

Closing Down Unsafe Mines in China

There are regulations and inspections and periodic campaigns that result in the closing down of unsafe mines. In 1997, there were 82,000 mines in operation. By 2002, only 23,000 were operating if government statistics are to be believed. That year government officials aimed to close down 15,000 mines. As of 2006, 23,000 small mines were still operating.

Many doubt the effectiveness of campaigns that close down mines. Many mines open right back up. It is not uncommon for a mine to reopen days after a disaster has occurred. Some operate during the night to avoid detection, which is especially dangerous. Bribes are paid to mine officials to look the other way on safety matters. Efforts to punish mine owners have often backfired, encouraging them to cover up deaths, flee accidents and even hide the bodies of the dead.

Between 2005 and 2008, 11,155 illegal mines were shut down according to the Chinese government.A total of 2,411 mines were closed down and 12,900 were ordered to suspend operations for safety violations in a single campaign that ended in December 2005. Not eveyone was happy about the campaign. In August 2005, 800 policemen clashed with armed villagers in Guangxi Province after people in the area resisted attempts to close down a mine

China shut down more than 8,000 dangerous illegal mines in 2006. One order called for all illegal mines to stop work immediately, dismantle their equipment and hand in explosives in 15 days. Still tens of thousands of other continued to operate. It was not clear why certain mines were closed and other were allowed to remain open.

In April 2006, the Chinese government announced that it would close down all small coal mines — those with a production capacity of less than 30,000 tons “or encourage them to merge with larger, safer mines. As part of the campaign Beijing ordered all government officials to get rid of their shares in the mines. The goal is to reduce the number of mines from 23,000 to 10,000 by 2010.

The are concerns that closing unsafe mine while exacerbate China’s power shortage problem.

Mine Disasters and Miner Deaths in China

Coal mining in China is the world’s deadliest industry. Of the 20 deadliest coal mining disasters ever, eight have been in China. Four accidents in 2005 killed over 70 people: an explosion in Liaoning that killed 210; a flood in Guangdong that killed 123; an explosion in Xinjiang that killed 83 and an explosion in Shanxi that killed 72. The worst mining accident ever, a coal dust explosion, killed 1,549 miner at the Honkeiko Colliery in China on April 26, 1942.

Mine disasters that kill 10 to 20 or so miners occur several times a year. In 2006, 4,746 miners were killed — 13 a day — in 2,845 accidents, mainly in underground explosions and flooding. In 2005, 5,986 died; 6,027 died in 2004 and 6,702 died in 2003.

According to the Chinese government 2,632 coal miners (seven miners a day) were killed in 2009, less than half the 6,995 (19.1 a day) who died in 2002, the most dangerous year in record.

Arccording to the Chinese government 3,786 miners died in 2007, a marked decrease from previous years but still a lot. A total of 2,163 miners were killed in 1,320 accidents in the first seven months of 2007. Many attribute the decline in the number of deaths to the shutting down of unsafe mines. About nine mine workers were killed a day in 2008.

In the United States there were 47 coal mining deaths in 2006 and 22 in 2005 and 28 in 2004. In 2006 there were 119,000 miners so the death rate was one per 2,500 miners. Coal deaths peaked in the U.S. In 1910 with 2,821. In 1920 there were 2,272 deaths among about 850,000 miners.

Many of the explosions occur because a buildup of gas because of lack of ventilation in illegal mines. Describing what happens before a tunnel collapses, one miner in Datong told New York Times, "Sometimes it happens with no warning. Sometimes you hear a sound. Then you hear pop-pop-popping and you run as fast as you can to get out."

Many think that accident are grossly under-reported. Some think that a many as 20,000 miners die every year in accidents. Add to this another 5 million who die from lung afflictions and other work-related diseases.

See Separate Article o Major Coal Mine Disasters

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Covering Up Mine Disasters in China

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “Under China’s authoritarian system, superiors reward subordinates for strict compliance with targets set from above, like reducing mine disasters. Should one occur, the incentive to hide it is often stronger than the reward for handling it well. A disaster on a bureaucrat’s watch is almost surely a blot on his career. A scandal buried quietly, under truckloads of dirt, may never be discovered.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 10, 2009]

“China’s lack of a free press, independent trade unions, citizen watchdog groups and other checks on official power makes cover-ups more possible, even though the Internet now makes it harder to suppress information completely.”

“Work-safety officials in Beijing complain that even more than in other industries, death tolls from accidents at coal mines are often ratcheted down or not reported at all. That is because of the risky profits to be made — by businessmen and corrupt local officials — exploiting dangerous coal seams with temporary, unskilled workers in thousands of illegal mines.”

“Just two weeks after the Lijiawa disaster, for example, officials in neighboring Shanxi Province announced that 11 people had been killed in a natural landslide. After another Internet-lodged complaint, investigators discovered that 41 villagers had been buried under a torrent of rocks and waste from an iron mine.

In 2008, in Shanxi Province, two journalists and 26 people posing as journalists were accused of taking money to cover up a coal mine accident in which a worker was killed.

Corruption and Covering Up Mine Disasters in China

“China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based nongovernment group that advocates workers’ rights, estimates that even a small Chinese coal mine producing just 30,000 tons a year of coal can make up to $900,000 a year in profit. In 2005, the central government ordered officials to divest themselves of their holdings in mines that they supervised. But Professor Hu said, Many officials still own shares.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 10, 2009]

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “Here in Yu County, where roads divide towering pyramids of coal and the poor rake the ravaged land in search of loose chunks, local officials were widelyassumed to be in league with mine operators. According to one local government official, nearly half of the county’s 200 mines operated illegally last year. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is politically delicate.Everyone in Yu County thinks this accident was very typical, he said. If Mao was still in power, these local officials would be executed.

Murder, Extortion and China's Coal Mines

Luo Jieqi of wrote: “Illegal coal mines near Beijing used to provide the perfect cover for murder-extortion plots, before the truth came to light. Zhang Xihua left most of her relatives in the dark when she suddenly and secretly married Han Junhong, an apartment security guard eight years her younger, and convinced him to quit his job. Equally mysterious was Zhang's sudden decision to divorce the father of her two children before running off with Han. But according to prosecutors, Zhang had at least one confidante who knew in advance why and how she would dump one husband and marry another. She had confided in a distant relative, Communist Party member and textile factory owner named Huang Yucai.Prosecutors say Huang, 51, not only persuaded Zhang, 46, to divorce and marry Han, but he also convinced her to kill him in the shaft of an illegal coal mine near Beijing as part of an elaborate, but apparently not so unusual, extortion plot.” [Source: Luo Jieqi,, July 28, 2010]

“Details of the plot came to light about a year after Han's death when Zhang, Huang, and a pair of miners Huang Xianzhong and Shi Xuesong were tried July 12 for murder and extortion in Beijing's First Intermediate Court. Prosecutors said the four conspired to extort an unknown amount of money from the owner of the mine where Han died by threatening to report his illegal operation to authorities. The crime was particularly diabolical because the conspirators killed Han, prosecutors said, in a way that made the death appear accidental. Moreover, investigators say, the three men were experienced in the dirty craft of murder-extortion plots at Beijing-area coal mines.”

“Defense statements in court cited Huang as the brains of the operation: He was responsible for selecting victims and then personally demanding payoffs from mine owners. Shi, 40, was in charge of finding suitable shafts at illegal mines for dumping bodies. And the actual killer was Huang Xianzhong, a 41-year-old nephew of the ringleader.”

“The gang's first victim was a mentally disabled man: Huang's 57-year-old brother-in-law Tong Yanfu. He died in June 2007 in an illegal coal mine in Beijing municipality's Fangshan District. To keep Tong's death under wraps, the mine owner paid the full 330,000 yuan demanded by the extortionists in behalf of the dead man's family. In turn, the gang received 120,000 yuan from Tong's family 40,000 yuan for Huang, and the rest for his conspirators by claiming they needed money to get help from organized crime figures.”

“Two months later, Huang arranged for the death of another relative, this time in an illegal mine in Beijing's Mentougou District. The killing of 54-year-old Zhang Xiuyun, a cousin with bad hearing, was the ticket to a 190,000 yuan payoff from the mine owner to the victim's family. The gang's cut was 60,000 yuan.”

Murder in Chinese Coal Mine Similar to Plot of a Film

“For fans of Chinese film director Li Yang, the crimes followed a familiar script. In his 2002 film Blind Shaft, an extortion plot targets a coal mine boss who, in exchange for their silence, pays off a pair of mine workers who murdered a coworker and masked the death as an accident. In the movie, the killers and victims were strangers. Huang, however, not only knew the victims but was their kin. Indeed, all the actors in Huang's plot were from the Chengde area of Hebei Province, just north of Beijing, and most knew each other.”[Source: Luo Jieqi,, July 28, 2010]

“The film's storyline is built around the uniquely Chinese phenomenon of what are commonly called “illegal” coal mines. These include underground mines of various sizes that operate secretly and without business licenses, often in remote areas, and require collusion between mine bosses and local government officials.”

At the court hearing, Zhang freely wept and repeatedly claimed innocence. Yet she failed to weaken the prosecution's argument that her quickie marriage to Han was clearly part of a scheme to murder him. Indeed, he died just nine days after the newlyweds moved to Beijing from Chengde. Huang told the court he had suggested Zhang divorce her former husband because he was abusive. But his advice went farther. “Divorce and find someone else and then kill him,” he told Zhang, according to his court testimony. “You can make a little money.”“

“Huang said he learned the art of mine-shaft extortion from others. “If you do this, you can make money fast,” he told Zhang, according to testimony. “You can extort 200,000 or 300,000 yuan for one person's life.” Huang told the court he was an experienced murderer, and proved his point by saying that he suggested Zhang “find a bachelor with very few family members. Then it's easy for you to get money. “If you go after relatives, they won't be suspicious.”'

Investigation of Chinese Coal Shaft Murder

“Like the deaths of his nephew and cousin, Han's killing might have gone unnoticed by authorities and the extortion plot might have succeeded if not for a major glitch: The owner of the illegal mine fled without paying Huang's gang the cash they demanded. So, faced with the problem of Han's corpse, they decided to report the death as an accident to police.” [Source: Luo Jieqi,, July 28, 2010]

“That report was a crucial mistake. Rather than brush off Han's death, the Fangshan District Public Security Bureau ordered a forensics examination of the corpse, which had been pulled from a mine shaft, and ruled he'd been beaten to death. Investigators said he had suffered a head injury and multiple bone fractures. Police ruled out accidental death.Investigators then extended their probe to Chengde, the hometown of Huang, each of his co-conspirators and each victim as well. They reopened the “accidental” cases of Tong and Zhang, and determined their deaths were murders, too.”

When confronted with the evidence of the earlier deaths in court, neither Huang nor his criminal cohorts showed regret. Instead, they justified killing disabled people as a way to bring relief to their families. Huang Xianzhong's lawyer, Mu Yanlin, argued that a fundamental issue connected to mine-shaft extortion is inadequate government regulation of the coal mining industry. Illegal coal mines are operating across the country, and their owners have every incentive to cover up accidents, including deaths.”

Image Sources: Environmental News, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2011

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