02/23/2009, 00.00
CHINA
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Mine blast in Shanxi leaves 74 dead, hundreds injured

The mine belonged to the largest state-owned company. Experts point out that big companies cut on safety, taking advantage of miners whose rights and lives are not protected by unions.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Rescue efforts ended today to find more survivors at the Tunlan coal mine in Gujiao, near Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province. At least 74 people died in the explosion; 61 in the mine shaft, 13 in hospital. About 300 people escaped, 114 of whom are still in hospital.

Many survivors suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from unventilated coal gas, which was the likely cause of the explosion. At present, the authorities are verifying safety measures and trying to determine why the ventilation system broke down. In the meantime the mine’s boss, its top engineer and the official in charge of mine safety were all dismissed.

Mining accidents are nothing new in China. A flooded mine in Xintai county drowned 181 miners on 17 August 2007. An explosion in Sunjiawan colliery in Fuxin City, Liaoning, killed 214 on 14 February 2005. Another explosion in Dongfeng coal mine in Qitaihe City, Heilongjiang, took the lives of 171 miners on 27 November 2005. Most recently 105 people died in a gas explosion in the Hongdong county coal mine in Linfen, Shanxi.

In 2008 alone more than a thousand small mines were shut down for safety reasons.

Officially “only” 3,200 people died in mining accidents last year, fewer than in previous years, but still the highest number in the world. Unofficially however the real death toll is at least twice the official figure.

The mine where yesterday’s accident took place belongs to state-owned Shanxi Coking Coal Group, the country’s largest producer of coking coal and the second in the world, with sales revenues of more than 37 billion yuan in 2007.

The Tunlan mine was a model operation boasting no accident-related fatalities in the past five years. Now miners and their families are angry and bewildered, and so is public opinion.

“In the past, most mining accidents occurred at small illegal mines, but this time the accident happened at the Tunlan mine, a large modern mine,” the local Chutianjin daily said in a commentary.

Most of the dead were in their twenties. Their families will receive each about 200,000 yuan (US$ 30,000) in compensation.

Hu Xindou, a Beijing Institute of Technology political science and economics professor, told the South China Morning Post that tighter safety controls focused too much on checking whether mines had the right permits (80 per cent of China’s 16,000 mines operate illegally) rather than on the effectiveness of their safety measures, often substandard.

Indeed many large mining companies have cut costs in work safety measures to increase profits. And this is made easier by the fact that most miners are migrant workers with “little bargaining power to safeguard their well-being” because “there are few trade unions to represent them.”

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