The 87 coal miners working the face of the Mengnanzhuang coalmine, a “Village” owned operation in Shanxi Province China, on March 22, 2003 noticed the smell of gas building up in the mine shaft they were working. Fearing an explosion they began to evacuate but were confronted by the mine manger and forced by whatever means or threats back to their positions at the coal face.
One hour later a massive explosion ripped through the mine killing all but 15 of those working down there that day. The “rescue” operation was so pitiful that three days later on March 22, at least 30 bodies were still to be seen under plastic sheets decomposing in the direct sunlight on the grounds outside the mine entrance. The 15 that survived are believed to have “ran away” after defying the Managers directions to return to the coal face and in doing so saving their lives.
This description of the events leading to the deaths of 72 men is, unfortunatly, not an execeptional set of circumstances. The Mengnanzhuang mine is like so many of the reputed 200,000 coal mines of China’s Coal mining industry whose operations officially kill on average 18 Chinese miners per day.( some analysts place this figure as high as 28)
China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world and sits on top of the globes third largest coal deposits. It’s 200,000 odd coalmines pump out in excess of 1.4 billion tonnes of coal a year which is one-third of the world’s output and despite this volume can not keep up with local demand.
It also has the unenviable reputation of pumping out, according to some sources, some 10,000 coffins per annum.
Coal mining in China is a very, very important industry. Coal is the primary fuel source in China and is used to generate approximately 75% of all China’s energy requirements and underpins China’s massive and meteoric economic rise over the last twenty years.
Without coal China’s industries would literally grind to a halt, countless thousands would die from the cold and China’s economic “miracle” would evaporate overnight.
It is so important that the Chinese Government has, over the last ten years at least, been willing to trade the lives of 10,000 miners per year to keep the industry producing. Each year the government demands enormous percentage increases in production just to try to keep pace with demand. Increases of a magnitude that would be considered unsustainable in most industries let alone one with such huge occupational health and safety issues.
The statistics of the industry are mind boggling. In 2002 output was 1.4 billion tonnes. In the period January 1 2004 to March 7 production was estimated at 262.29 million tonnes putting it on target for a full year output of around 1.8 million tonnes. These 2004 figures are up some 21.7% on the corresponding period in 2003.
China at one time had 430,000 coalmines and it is estimated today that there are some 200,000 in operation. Essentially there are three types of coal mining operations running in China, The State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s) which typically are the giants in terms of per mine output, the Village owned mines which are run by and for local villages and the privately owned or “Local” mines.
With economic growth at 9.1% in 2003 and planned economic growth of 8% p.a. in the next five years the demands on the industry will be enormous. As a rule of thumb coal output has had to increase in excess of 2 percentage points for every one percent of economic growth. So if the economy is growing at say 8% per annum coal output must increase by 16% to keep pace. China obviously is desperately searching for alternative fuel sources but for the foreseeable future coal will remain the mainstay.
What does this mean in terms of fatalities in the industry? It means ever growing numbers. China’s fatality rate is 3.824 deaths per one million tons as compares to fatality rates of .1 for both Australia and the US the 4th and 2nd ranked producers respectively.
Sustaining growth above double figures in any business for any length of time is extremely difficult. Mature businesses can handle it better than immature businesses. To ask businesses in a high risk industry coming off the base that a majority of China’s coal minors are coming off to achieve sustained annual growth in excess of 16% for the industry as a whole, is inviting catastrophe,
This situation is further exacerbated when we realise that the overall growth rate is being supported more by the private and village mines then the state owned enterprises, Some of these former category mines are experiencing annual output growth of as high as 30%. 50% of China’s output is provided by such mines and they are the mines most at risk
So we have a situation where
 output requirements are growing at an generally unsustainable rate in terms of management capabilities, mine infrastructure and OH&S considerations.
 These growth requirements are being met more by the smaller and less controlled mines, the very same mines that contribute the highest to the death toll.
 More output requires more workers and these are literally being thrown down the shaft with little or no training or experience.
The end result given the current state of affairs is obvious: exponential growth in deaths and injuries.
So what is the government doing?
For the last ten years and on a regular basis, generally co-incident with some tragedy, the government announces rafts of reforms and penalties supposedly designed to clean up the industry.
Despite the fact that probably 200,000 mines have been permanently closed down in that period the governments announcements have been little more than rhetoric.
In August last year Premier Wen Jaibao personally ordered a complete overhaul of the industry as it concerns OH& S . His pronouncement immediately resulted in all but the major four coalmines being either closed down or ordered to reduce or pause production until such time as they were able to upgrade safety.
So great was the consequent loss of production (estimated to be 36.64 million in the third quarter 2003) and so major was the flow on effects to high energy use industries such as steel production, that in September a directive was given that “checks had to be sped up and coal mines re-opened”. In November the State Development and Planning Commission ordered all of the SOE’s to increase production as much as possible and that coal mines under “rectification” were ordered to resume production as soon practicable.
Once fully back in production the industry has in the first couple two and a half months of 2004 increased production 21.7% above the corresponding period in 2003. The local and village mines, those most at risk from an OH& S viewpoint increased production 30.3% and 25.2% respectively.
Apart from periodically announcing reforms and industry shakeouts and the Wen directive the government does precious little.
There are 200,000 odd mines and only a few odd thousand mine inspectors nationwide. (Juxtapose this to the reputed 30,000 state employees assigned to Internet censorship and monitoring)
Most of the mines are local or village owned mines where graft and corruption is rife and laws are circumvented in a myriad number of ways. Workers for example are paid “off the books” to avoid certain legislation. The bottom line is that once you move away from the SOE’s. The industry is a cesspool of greed and corruption
It is obvious, given the turnaround in policy, that the Government has decided that economic growth must come first at all costs and part of that cost is the price in terms of human lives and suffering.
The situation can not improve on the basis of the current legislation and the demands on the industry. Obviously wholesale shutdowns and other safety “rectification ” methods can not be the answer as the nation is just too dependent on coal as can be seen in the results of the Wen exercise,
The only real fix is the establishment of alternative fuel sources combined with a drive for more efficient use of energy, but that is along term solution. In the meantime the Government must find ways and means to dramatically reduce this slaughter of innocent workers in the name of the “national good”
Firstly, from the Chinese governments point of view, more money and resources are needed to be thrown at the problem. The 2004 mine safety budget of 2,2 billion Yuan (US$265m) despite being 200,000,000 up on the average of the previous two years is apparently inadequate. Having only a handful of inspectors clearly is. A massive anti -corruption drive is required to eradicate corruption at all levels within the industry and the setting up of workers Unions or advocacy bodies to watchdog and protect workers rights is a necessity.
Secondly, the international community needs to get involved as clearly the problem is too big for China to solve on her own. What this is likely to entail I am not expert enough to provide a solution but for thought starters a combination of any of the following plus any other practical solutions that no doubt escape me would be a start
1. A “Lend Lease” type arrangement to supply fuel to take the pressure off local producers so as reforms can be implemented,
2. Provision of high level expertise to investigate the industry and propose reforms.
3. Provision of experts on the ground to aid in implementing reform
4. Provision of expertise in energy management to investigate and propose reforms to energy management by industry and the nation generally.
5. Economic sanctions or penalties benched marked to safety results.
Essentially whatever and for how long it takes to reduce significantly this tragic and wasteful loss of lives.
This problem is huge, it will not get better by itself only worsen and it is a gross infringement on Human rights. China and the international community must act decisively and act now to turn this problem around.