Qitaihe (AsiaNews/SCMP) The Qitaihe mining tragedy could have been avoided. Victims' relatives reveal that miners had complained about unsafe working conditions for months. Official sources have remained silent as to who is responsible even though the mine where the blast took place had all necessary safety papers.
The blast in Dongfeng Mine on Sunday trapped 221 miners underground. So far 146 have been confirmed dead, 72 have been rescued and 3 are still missing.
Relatives hung around the pit night and day waiting for news in minus 15 weather; some were silent; others wept or sobbed.
"It's all the management's fault," said a woman whose nephew and brother-in-law were among the missing. "They knew all along that there were safety problems but they wouldn't do anything about it."
Relatives say that miners had complained several times about poorly enforced safety regulations and had even threatened to strike unless the safety standards were improved. But management ignored their pleas and miners had to go back down the pit to earn between 1,000 and 2,000 yuan a month (US$ 125-250).
So far there has been no official statement about who is responsible for the accident.
With a population of about 800,000, Qitaihe has been hit by a series of coal mine accidents in recent years, although none have been as deadly as Sunday's blast in the Dongfeng mine.
In March an explosion killed 18 people in mine that had been ordered closed for lack of safety. The mine's owner was the deputy director of the city's Work Safety Bureau.
Just two months later, another explosion at a local mine site killed nine workers.
The State Council has taken high-profile steps this year in an effort to improve safety in mines. More than 9,000 illegal mines have been closed down this year and operations at a further 12,990 have been suspended.
However, coal mine fatalities had increased 8.5 per cent in the first eight months compared with the same period last year.
State-owned newspapers have charged local authorities with failing to uphold safety standards because they often hold shares in mining companies and are largely corrupt.
In some provinces after November 1, local authorities had allowed coal mines whose operations had been suspended for breaching safety regulations to resume working.
By contrast, the central government had ordered companies to have at least one executive in the pit with the miners to share their fate.
President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao urged officials to curb the "possible occurrence of big safety accidents which claim huge casualties," and demanded stricter inspections and punishments for violators
But it is obvious that these measures have not solved the problem and many observers wonder if the central government truly enforces them.
China's mines are regarded as the most dangerous in the world, and the problem has worsened in recent years as demand for raw materials has escalated to fuel the nation's rapid economic growth.
Coal prices rose by 40 per cent in 2004 pushed by a 56 per cent rise in demand for electrical power in 1999-2003. Consumption is expected to grow by another 11 per cent by 2006.
For experts high demand for coal has lead to short cuts around safety rules.
With coal covering two thirds of China's domestic energy needs, the government in early November announced an increase in production from 2.1 to 2.4 billion tonnes over the next five years.
When it comes to accidents, small companies are the usual culprit, but the Dongfeng mine is owned by mining conglomerate Heilongjiang Longmei Group, which owns four state-owned coal producers in Heilongjiang province, worth 13 billion yuan ( 1.3 billion).
The mine had all the necessary government papers and permits in order and has been operating for more than 50 years with a capacity of 500,000 tonnes per year.
For experts the incident at the Dongfeng mine was likely caused by excessive output driven by the need for coal. (PB)