12/06/2005, 00.00
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Dongfeng's death toll reaches 171, PM Wen admits chaos and danger in coal mines

Careless safety measures are blamed, but official sources admit many accidents are caused by production targets outrunning mines' capacities. Owner of Sigou mine in Henan is arrested along with two company officials as rescue workers try to save 42 miners trapped in flooded mine.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Death toll in the Dongfeng coal mine disaster has reached 171. The latest tragedy has broken the camel's back forcing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to acknowledge that the mining industry is in a state of chaos and dangers despite efforts at greater safety.

Two additional mine officials and the owner of the Sigou mine in Henan province have been arrested after 42 miners went missing after a flood trapped them underground on December 2.

Prime Minister Wen yesterday spoke about the explosion in the Dongfeng mine in Qitaihe (Heilongjiang province) that left 171 miners dead.

The state-owned mine was considered a stellar example of proper safety and just two weeks ago an association of Chinese industrialists had called the mine's chief manager, Ma Jinguang, an "eminent mining leader".

That was far from the reality since the mine itself lacked basic equipment, and according Li Yizhong, head of Workers' Safety Administration (WSA), Ma was a careless person who ignored basic safety rules.

Such a disaster was in fact predictable. Back in March Qitaihe had seen another explosion that killed 18 miners. The mine's management was so slovenly that for days the final tally of miners trapped underground was unknown. 

In criticising local authorities, Wen said that "safety measures that we had indicated were either not applied, disregarded or only applied in words,"

Although Wen had committed himself to greater safety in the mining sector, the number of accidents has escalated in 2005. What is more, this year has also seen the two worst mining disasters since 1949.

In the case of the Sigou coal mine in Henan province, rescue workers were still pumping water out of, three days after a flood trapped the miners.

More than 8,000 cubic metres of water have been pumped out, but even as more than 200 rescuers work around the clock to pump out the mine, water continues to flood in.

The mine's owner, identified as Jin Changsong, did not have a safety licence for the mine. He and two others company officials fled but were caught.

Zhao Tiechui, head of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, announced last Saturday that 4,000 small mines will be closed over the next three years. Many of them are state-owned.

In China there are some 24,000 small coal mines producing on average 10 to 30 thousand tonnes of coal per year, representing 70 per cent of the national output.

However, accidents also happen, WSA head Li Yizhong said, because company bosses push output beyond mines' capacities,

"Some companies increase production at the expense of safety," he noted, especially in state-owned mines.

The Dongfeng mine probably was working beyond its real capacity as well, he added. (PB)

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