China’s coal mine fatalities increase in first quarter

The number of coal mine deaths in China has risen for the first time since 2002. There were 592 fatalities related to coal mine accidents in the first three months of this year, compared with 509 in the first quarter last year, the China Daily reported today.

The sharp rise in the number of fatalities can be partly explained by the low demand for coal at the height of the global economic crisis early last year, but also because of the widespread renovation and construction of new mines to meet higher demand this year. According to official figures, as of 1 March, there were 7,939 mines under construction or renovation.

Huang Yi, spokesman for the State Administration of Work Safety, noted that three of the four major mine disasters so far this year (those involving more than 30 deaths) occurred in mines under construction, including the state-owned Wangjialing mine, scene of the highly publicized rescue of 115 miners in early April, which eventually led to 38 deaths.

The new figures were released just two weeks after Huang publicly criticized the country’s coal mine safety record, saying China’s enforcement of safety laws, investment in coal mine safety and worker training are all woefully inadequate.

In today’s China Daily, Huang went further saying the failings of local government supervisory bodies had actually contributed to the rise in accidents, and, “in some cases, safety supervisors even fled the accident scene along with the mine owners,” Huang said citing the blast at a small coal mine in Yichuan county, Henan, which killed 44 miners.

As CLB noted on 10 May, collusion between government officials and mine operators is probably the main obstacle to improvements in mine safety, and there is little evidence thus far that the re-nationalization of small and medium-sized mines in Shanxi has helped resolve the issue. Indeed, it could be argued that by giving state-owned mines more economic power, they can use that power to more effectively buy off and influence local government officials.

Indeed, Huang admitted in the China Daily today that local governments were now reluctant to supervise state-owned mines like Wangjialing and had created loopholes to avoid their responsibilities.
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