China's pits, the world's most productive, have become the deadliest as Communist controls give way to private enterprise and lax safety standards.
By CHING-CHING NI
TIMES STAFF WRITER January 23 2002
PODI, China -- It happened on the 4-to-midnight shift.
Above ground, there was only a muffled sound and a jerk on the pulleys that move coal up from the earth. Underground, there was an inferno.
"I saw two people run out screaming, 'The people at the bottom are done for!' " said Ren Tao, 19, who ran the pulleys the day of the explosion here in November. "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, Ren's pulleys brought up carts filled not with coal but with corpses. "I was terrified," he said.
China leads the world in coal production--and in lives lost in the mines.
About 5,400 coal miners perished in explosions and other accidents during the first 11 months of last year, the government reported last week. Some estimates put the annual death toll at 10,000. That compares with about 30 mining deaths a year in the United States, which ranks a close second to China as a coal producer.
The carnage reflects the troubled state of some heavy industries in China as the Communist government loosens control of the economy and allows more private enterprise.
The miners of yesterday were state employees, relatively well-paid and well-respected pillars of the socialist motherland. Today, more and more are working for private mines with minimal or no safety standards, subsisting on the dark side of the new economy, lucky to have jobs at all.
"Coal miners' lives are pure heartache," said Li Ziqi, who escaped death in the November blast because he had worked an earlier shift.
Li lives in China's coal mining capital--the mountainous Shanxi province in the north. This impoverished region produces one-third of the roughly 1 billion tons of coal that China mines each year, feeding an insatiable demand for low-cost energy and generating desperately needed jobs.
In November, at least 100 workers died in five accidents in Shanxi's mines. The biggest blast, at the Podi mine Nov. 15, killed 33 miners and wounded 12.
For China as a whole, mining deaths declined slightly last year compared with 2000, according to government figures. Yet tragedies remain commonplace. Last week, at least 50 miners were reported killed in accidents in three provinces.
The high number of accidents "indicates that an uphill battle to improve work safety still awaits us this year," Zhang Baomin, general director of the State Administration of Work Safety, told the China Daily newspaper.
In the days of the centrally planned economy, large state-owned coal mines, though inefficient, guaranteed steady incomes for the nation's 8 million miners and provided social services.
The shift toward a more competitive economy in the last two decades forced many of these money-losing enterprises out of business, throwing as many as 2 million men out of work.
In place of many state mines came smaller, profit-driven operations that capitalize on an abundant supply of cheap labor made up of the laid-off miners and impoverished farmers.
Many private mines reduce not only wages but also safety standards. They tend to carve out more workstations underground, have fewer exits and operate fewer of the ventilation fans needed to remove natural gas fumes--responsible, according to one report, for half the explosions in Chinese mines. Private mines also tend to have fewer safety inspections and less safety training for employees.
By the late 1990s, as many as 80,000 small coal fields were burrowed across this vast land, making government oversight extremely difficult. Beijing has shut down thousands of facilities--including the Podi mine after the explosion--but at least 23,000 remain open, most of them private.
The more mines the government closes, the more profitable it is to break the law. When production goes down, the price of coal goes up. To avoid detection, some small unlicensed mines operate only at night. Others don't bother with such precautions and run 24 hours a day.
Local governments do little about the illegal operations because they provide jobs--and, at times, bribes.
In any case, China can go only so far in shuttering unsafe mines because it is the world's largest consumer of coal, using more than one-fifth of the global total each year, slightly above U.S. consumption levels. Until cheaper alternative sources of energy become viable for homes and businesses, China will depend on coal to power its breakneck economic growth.
Then there is the fear of social unrest. As dangerous as the jobs are, they are the best employment most miners can find.
Li, the Podi miner, said the November disaster would not deter him from working underground.
"Of course I plan to go back down," the 33-year-old father of two said. Since he lost his job a few years ago at a large state mine, where he had worked since he was 17, Li has toiled at several private operations and narrowly skirted death in two explosions.
"I've already found a new job at another mine," Li said. "My family needs the money. I don't know how to do anything else."
The Podi mine had been a bustling enterprise. It cranked out more than 100 tons of coal a day running three full shifts without an operating permit. Locals say the mine suffered a deadly accident a couple of years ago but reopened last year without any improvements in safety.
Poor ventilation and a lack of sufficient exit routes contributed to the
November accident and deaths, according to local mine workers. "If they are supposed to have 10 ventilators, you would be lucky if there were five," Li said.
The larger state-owned mines could afford more sophisticated equipment and better safety procedures. "Now we work with 1950s technology," Li said. "It's like going back in time." Even private mines that inherited more advanced technology often find it cheaper not to use it.
"The difference is heaven and earth," said Li Yansheng, a former coal industry official in Shanxi, comparing the old state mines with the private ones. "Think of a fancy four-star hotel restaurant versus a snack stand at a train station."
Inspectors are supposed to check for safety violations at all mines at least once a month.
"If they came several times a year, that would be a lot," said Li Jiesheng, 53, a retired miner. "And when the inspectors do come, they are often whisked straight away to a banquet and stuffed with red envelopes of money."
"Deng Xiaoping said, 'Let some people get rich first,' " he said, referring to the late architect of China's economic reforms. "They got rich all right, by breaking the law. We miners have no human rights. We don't even have the right to exist."
The pay at most mines is based on how much coal the worker digs. The strongest and most experienced miners can make more than $120 a month, about double the average local wage.
At the state mines, the veterans recalled, recruits received at least three months of training and workers were given a new set of uniforms each year. Now, newcomers start work the day they arrive and learn as they go.
Here in Podi, the mine remains closed. The shaft is nailed shut. The tracks leading out of the abyss have been torn up. Snow drapes large mounds of abandoned black coal. The workers, most of them migrants from elsewhere in China, have left.
Guo Junxian lost her husband, Li Jicheng, in the accident. "The whole family depended on his wages, the young and the old," Guo, 39, said from her threadbare home in a snow-covered village near Podi. "Who told us to be poor? He had no choice."
The onetime farmer turned to mining because he could not harvest enough crops to support his wife and three children. After working at three mines, he was hospitalized with a back injury.
As soon as he could get out of bed, Li went to work at the Podi mine. At first he was a cook, but the pay was low, his wife said. So he put on a helmet and went underground.
Other men in his family--his brother, father-in-law and two brothers-in-law--made the same choice. They have survived so far.
The day of the accident, Li left for work after lunch. Guo was expecting him back sometime after midnight, when he would eat his second hot meal of the day. She had packed him a salty pancake for the road.
The next time he emerged from the mine, it was as one of the 33 bodies burned beyond recognition.
"Their faces were torched. Their torsos were blood-red," Li Ziqi recalled as Guo sobbed in the next room, warmed by a coal stove. "The only way you could tell who they were was by reading the tag on their belt."