08/21/2007, 00.00
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Authorities expected the Xintai mining disaster

For days official media had openly discussed flood-related risks. It might take 40 days to pump the mines dry. Few people still hope the 181 miners trapped underground will be rescued. Authorities issue orders banning work underground when rains are heavy but fail to explain why they did not act before.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Rescue operation continued today despite the fact that hopes for the survival of 181 miners trapped since August 17 in two separate flooded coal mines are fading fast. The Huayuan and Minggong coal mines in Xintai (Shandong Province) were flooded following heavy rains. Meanwhile an increasingly fierce controversy has flared up around the preventable disaster.

When a 50-metre-long levee on the Wen River was breached the two mines were flooded. Since then about 7,000 cubic m have been pumped out per hour but as of Sunday the flooded mines were estimated to contain 12 million cubic m of water. It would take more than 40 days to remove all the water.

A retired miner told the South China Morning Post that the main pit was 860 metres deep and there were no places for the trapped workers to hide. “If they didn't manage to escape in the beginning, there will be no second chance for them.”

He said there was a similar accident at the same mine, albeit on a much smaller scale, in 2005, but workers managed to escape in time.

The accident did not come out from the blue. Shandong mining regulators highlighted seasonal flooding risks at a meeting of provincial coal mine operators in Xintai just a day before.

A document released on the Shandong coal mine work-safety regulator's website highlighted the Xintai area as deserving of special attention because of flood risks.

“Especially in areas along rivers and lakes and low-lying areas where water easily accumulates and leaks, we must take preventive measures,” a safety official was quoted as saying.

Shandong provincial government spokesman Zhang Dekuan said on Sunday that this flood level is seen only once every 70 years. But it took two days to repair the breach. CCTV footage showed soldiers throwing sandbags, dead trees and even a truck into the Wen River in a desperate effort to plug the breach.

The disaster could have been even worse since at the time water began gushing, 756 miners were working underground at the Huayuan mine. Hundreds were able to scramble to safety.

In Beijing the central government ordered all coal mines in low-lying areas to stop production during heavy rains.

In an urgent directive, the State Administration of Work Safety ordered all coal mines to check their facilities and consolidate underground channels.

Coal mines near rivers, lakes and reservoirs were instructed to build anti-flood dykes and dams around the mines and double check their drainage systems, Xinhua reported.

If miners are not rescued, it will be the mainland's second-deadliest coal mine accident since 1949. The worst one happened in February 2005 when 214 miners died in an explosion in Fuxin, Liaoning Province.

The latest incident comes after a series of other flood-related accidents and several weeks of bad weather.

Two weeks earlier, authorities in Henan were lucky to rescue 69 miners from a flooded coal pit in Shan County after three days underground. National media covered the rescue operations with great interests.

Beijing usually blames local officials for failing to enforce safety regulations and leaving thousands of unsafe mines in operation in response to the country’s incessant demand for coal. But Huayuan Mining is a licensed enterprise with an annual capacity of 750,000 tonnes.

Last year 4,746 people were reported killed in thousands of cave-ins, blasts, floods and other mining accidents.

But the Beijing Times estimated that more than 7,000 miners were killed by the same causes. By comparison, 43 miners died in the United States over the same period.

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