An explosion in a Chinese coal mine buries miners alive... again .

From ToxicLeaks

Another deadly explosion causes multiple deaths in a Chinese mine in the area of Chongqing. 33 miners were killed after the explosion that took place on Monday October 31. Another staggering man killing disaster that comes as no surprise given China's deplorable track record. Every year, hundreds of people die in coal mine incidents because safety measures are not followed and apparently, nothing is learned because these disasters keep happening and killing Chinese miners.

A gas explosion kills 33 near Chongqing, China[edit | edit source]

On Monday 31 October, a gas explosion shattered the shaft of a mine owned by Jinshangou Coal industry Co. in the area of Chongqing, in China, killing 13 miners and trapping 20 others. After several days of trying to find them, the rescue team finally discovered their bodies at the bottom of the mine, taking the death toll to 33. Of the miners working that day, only two survived... A shocking story but unfortunately, not a surprising one, when one looks at the history of coal mine disasters in China.

The most deadly coal mines disaster in world history have happened in China ![edit | edit source]

Indeed, coal mines incidents are something of a Chinese tradition ! The most deadly coal mine disasters of the world history actually took place in China. It happened in 1942, in the middle of World War II, in a coal mine of Liaoning province when it was under the domination of Japan. On 26 April 1942, an explosion was set off by a mixture of coal dust and gas, which started a fire in the fire. To end the fire, the Japanese sealed the mine shut which cut of the oxygen supply but also sentenced to death the 1,549 miners that were still in the mine and that died from suffocation. A gruesome mining disaster to be sure, but one will argue that the death toll had more to do with the Japanese occupation than with the mining industry in itself. However, major mining disasters have continued to happen. For example, the 4th deadliest coal mine disaster of world history also happened in China, in the province of Shanxi, on 9 Mai 1960. A methane explosion was set off and killed 684 people, although news of the disaster was deliberately hid from the population by the Chinese government, then led by Mao Zedong.

Coal mine disasters keep happening in China today[edit | edit source]

These 20th century coal mine disasters did happen in very specific historical circumstances, the Japanese occupation and the maoist regime. But while fatalities of more recent coal mine disasters are lower, these disaster keep happening and killing hundreds of Chinese miners every year, a situation clearly unacceptable for a country that claims to have brought development and improved the lives of its citizens. A string of incredibly deadly coal mine disasters have bloodied China since 2000 and proved that China definitely still has a coal problem. In 2000, a gas explosion caused a mine in Guizhou, in the South of the country, to collapse and killed 162 people. Four years later, 166 miners were burried alive and died after a gas blast shattered a mine in the province of Shaanxi. In February 2005, over 200 miners died because of another gas explosion, in a mine in the province of Liaoning. And the list goes on and on : 171 dead in the Dongfeng mine disaster, in Heilongjiang province, in 2005, 181 dead in another disaster in Shandong province in 2007, 105 dead in a coal mine catastrophe in Shaanxi in 2007. In 2008, the year the Olympic Games were held in Beijing to showcase China's rise in globalization, China had the world's deadliest coal mines with over 3,200 deaths… And while the situation has improved slightly, it is still dramatic and puts at risk the millions of miners that still go down the shafts. The disaster that happened near Chongqing at the end of October is a harsh reminder that Chinese coal mines still kill. Earlier this year, another mine experienced a similar kind of gas explosion in the area of Jilin, in the Northeast of China. The miners working in the mine were buried alive and 11 of them died while only one was found alive.

Insufficient progress in Chinese coal mine safety[edit | edit source]

Indeed, there is something very strange and upsetting in seeing the Chinese State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) celebrating a death toll of “only 931” in 2014 ! That figure still means that almost a thousand miners were killed because they worked in unsafe mines in 2014, which represents almost 3 deaths every day ! Furthermore, there are many reasons to question the optimistic assessment of the SAWS. First of all, the Chinese data focused mainly on “serious” accidents (over 10 deaths) and “exceptionally serious” accidents (over 30 deaths). This is seen by Tim Wright, a professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sheffield in the U.K, as a way to shed a positive light on the government's policies : “They claim to have had no exceptionally serious coal mine accidents for 21 months. No doubt, they use whichever figure is most favorable to them”. According to Tim Wright, this has led the Chinese authorities to only address the issue of gas explosions : “As these mostly resulted from gas explosions, so the focus on controlling gas and reducing gas explosions has been an important part of policy”. Furthermore, the statistics on deaths in coal mines cannot be trusted because coal mines operators understate the fatalities to avoid penalties. Indeed, the penalties are linked to the categorisation of the disasters (“serious” or “extremely serious”) which has led the Babao Coal Mine Co. to report only 28 deaths from an accident in a mine in Baishan, in the Northeast, when actually 36 people had been killed. Another major problem that makes the statistics unreliable is that owners of coal mine try to cover up the disasters. In July 2015, an illegal coal mine in Heilongjiand collapsed and killed 7 miners. But instead of reporting the catastrophe, the mine owners secretly cremated the bodies of the dead and offered to compensate their families. The cover up was discovered after two weeks but there are no doubt hundreds of accidents that are never reported every year. And these cases illustrate China's main issue with coal mine safety. While the policy defined by the government goes in the right direction (despite its obvious shortcomings), implementing it is another affair.

The safety regulations were not respected in the Chongqing coal mine[edit | edit source]

Indeed, although only a few days have passed since the disaster in the Chongqing mine that killed 33, the SAWS investigation has already revealed the numerous safety violations that put the miners at risk and caused their death. Among the most severe safety violations, the SAWS found that the Jinshangou Coal Industry Co. was using outdated equipment and was sending miners beyond the maximal legal drilling area of 100 feet. Furthermore, safety inspectors had visited one of the Jinshangou Coal Industry's coal mines in October, a few weeks before the explosion, and they concluded that it represented one of the “safety hazards” of the area and that it should therefore be shut down. But of course that didn't happen and the owners continued to send workers down the shaft even though it would lead them to their deaths. The SAWS also found many administrative shortcomings such as the fact that the Jinshangou Coal Industry Co. hadn't marked the boundaries of the mine correctly. It also hadn't submitted the proper paperwork or organised the necessary supervision a coal mine needs. Of course, the owner of Jinshangou Coal Industry Co., Jiang Wenge, refused to take calls from journalists that sought to ask him questions to understand the catastrophe. This is just like the story of the owner of a mine in Shandong who killed himself after his gypsum mine collapsed and trapped 17 miners. Some of the men were trapped for 36 days before they were rescued. And the owner of that mine obviously tried to escape the responsibility of the disaster.

This latest addition to the long list of coal mines disasters in China proves that the Chinese government needs to crack down much harder on mine owners that deliberately disregard safety regulations and put their workers at risk. But actually the quickest way to permanently address the issue of coal mine safety is to close the mines, and not just the small and/or illegal ones because even the large coal mines represent a safety hazard for workers and China will probably not develop a culture of work safety that will efficiently protect miners for decades. And obviously, shutting down the coal mines is the only way China will honour its pledge to reduce its carbon emissions and improve the air quality that kills 1 million people every year.