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Poor safety to blame for Chinese coal mine blast

Author : Amy Hollamby

23 November 2009

At least 104 people have died after an underground explosion at a coal mine in northeastern China on the morning of the 21st November. The blast is believed to be the country’s worst mining disaster for two years. In addition to those killed, 60 miners were hospitalised for injuries such as carbon monoxide poisoning and burns. Six were in critical condition with severe burns.

Poor safety to blame for Chinese coal mine blast
Poor safety to blame for Chinese coal mine blast

This incident highlights the human cost of the heavy demand for power-generating coal in China.

The Xinxing mine produces more than 1m tonnes of coal each year and is run by the state-owned Heilongjiang Longmei mining holding group. The mine’s monitoring room had received alerts of a sudden, dramatic rise in underground gas level approximately 53 minutes before the blast, so safety staff knew gas had reached dangerous levels. State regulations stipulate that miners have to evacuate if gas density exceeds 2%, the density in the pit was more than 10%. Managers immediately cut off underground power and notified all personnel to evacuate, but it remains unclear why it took so long to clear the pit.

The exact cause of the explosion is unknown, but is believed to be a gas leak in one of the mine shafts. As a result of poor ventilation, it spread into the main tunnel and triggered an explosion that shook 28 of the 30 mining platforms in operation.

The explosion was unusual in that it involved a large mine operated by one of China’s biggest state-owned companies. Most of the deaths in Chinese mines occur in small, unlicensed operations that the national government has tried to shut down. But the authorities often meet opposition from mine owners, who find these mines profitable, and from local officials who want to create jobs and may have corrupt links to the mine owners. Previous mining disasters have shown that managers refused to clear pits, even when gas monitors indicated problems or evacuation alarms sounded, because of the losses caused by shutting down production.

A major safety drive has cut the number of mining deaths in China since 2004, primarily through the closure or forced acquisition of small, private and often illegal mines.

In the first half of 2009, 1,175 people died in pits across China, a fall of 18.4% compared with the same period in 2008. However, deadly accidents are still occurring despite efforts to improve safety, highlighting the need for more effective safety measures, including giving a voice to workers, whose safety concerns are often overruled by their bosses.

State media reported that the families of each victim were expected to receive at least £22,000, 25% more than the standard compensation for fatalities in incidents caused by negligence.

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