By Michael Lelyveld
BOSTON—China’s coal industry made strides in improving safety last year, although its death toll remains the highest in the world, experts say.
In 2009, coal fatalities and accidents both declined by double-digit rates while production rose, according to official reports.
“The figures show that the number of fatalities has more than halved since 2005. At the same time, output has increased by about 20-30 percent, so there’s a dramatic fall in the death rate,” said Tim Wright, a China coal industry expert at Britain’s University of Sheffield.
On Jan. 19, the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety (SACMS) said 2,631 miners died in accidents last year, down 18 percent from 2008, state media reported.
China’s coal production also climbed over 12 percent to a record of nearly 3 billion tons, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said.
The figures suggest significant progress in promoting worker safety in mines.
“It is a very substantial achievement, I think,” Wright told Radio Free Asia.
High human cost
But praise for progress is still tempered by the high human cost of producing China’s main fuel, which accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s power. Even with the improvements, China’s coal industry ranks as the largest and deadliest in the world.
Last year, China mined nearly three times as much coal as the second-place United States, but it recorded 146 times as many deaths, based on a comparison of official energy and labor reports.
Comparisons are difficult because most of China’s mining is deep underground, while U.S. mines are largely “opencast” or above-ground operations, said Wright.
But the death toll in the two countries suggests a sharp difference in risks. On average, over 7 miners are killed in China coal accidents each day, while 18 died in U.S. mine accidents during all of last year.
China is making gradual headway on closing and consolidating smaller mining operations, which are responsible for the highest death rates.
Small mines account for 35 percent of China’s coal output but 70 percent of deaths, SACMS director Zhao Tiechui said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
China reportedly closed 1,088 small mines last year, about as many as in 2008, but it is unclear how soon it will meet its goal of shutting down the most dangerous mines.
At various times, Chinese agencies have sought to close or merge all small mines, or at least reduce their number to fewer than 10,000.
Zhao urged that the number be limited to 10,000 “by the end of this year,” the English-language China Daily reported, although the goal was originally set for mid-2008.
From 1998-2001, the government claimed to have closed 430,000 of the smallest county-level mines, but there have been many reports of deaths at mines that opened up again.
“There is no doubt that this is a slow and difficult process,” said Wright, adding that energy demand is high while many local economies depend on small mines. “The government is certainly going not only slower than it would like to, but slower than it says it is.”
Still, the fatality figures suggest progress toward the goal of closing small mines, he said.
Last year, China’s worst accident was at a larger, more mechanized mine in northern Heilongjiang province. The November blast at the Xinxing mine in Hegang City left 108 dead.
Despite the reported improvements, a high number of deaths is likely as long as demand for coal keeps growing, said Robert Ebel, senior adviser for energy and national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
China’s coal production has nearly tripled in eight years, with no end in sight.
Output is expected to rise again this year to 3.1 billion tons, putting more pressure on safety, Zhao said, according to China Daily.
Ebel said pressure to maintain employment may be just as great a factor as energy demand.
“When you’re living in a small village and the local coal mine is your only source of employment, what do you do if that coal mine is shut down? Where do you go?” he said.