Just as West Virginia families were hit with word of a deadly mine disaster on April 5, relatives of miners missing after a flood in China's coal belt welcomed some unexpected news. After eight days trapped underground, 115 coal miners in Shanxi province were dramatically rescued. In China, where mine disasters are grimly commonplace, the rescue was trumpeted as a miracle. And in the U.S., where mine safety is sometimes seen as a question that was resolved decades ago, the death of at least 25 men a painful reminder of the risks they face.
The explosion at the Massey Energy company's Upper Big Branch mine was the deadliest U.S. mining disaster in 26 years. The U.S. is one of the safest places for the profession; last year the country recorded 34 fatalities, an all-time low, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. China, one of the world's deadliest places for mining, has seen improvements in the safety of its mines, albeit from the high numbers of accidents in past years. In 2009, 2,631 people died in Chinese mines, down from a peak of 6,995 in 2002.
The safety disparity has many causes, including greater automation in the U.S. and a more sustained focus on workplace safety. China depends on relatively cheap coal as a key source of energy for its rapidly growing economy, and its mines churn out more than twice the amount as the U.S. In 2008, China produced 2.85 billion tons of coal, versus 1.17 billion in the U.S. Coal mines are responsible for a large share of global mine disasters because they are more likely to produce toxic and combustible gases than metal or other mines.
Independent safety experts have said that China's actual total of mining deaths could be much higher, since mine operators and local authorities face pressure to conceal accidents. This year nine Chinese reporters were jailed for accepting bribes to cover up a mine disaster in Hebei province that killed 34 miners a little over a month before the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. By contrast, the recent rescue at the Wangjialing pit has received close coverage from state-run press. "This kind of heroic rescue operation always gets a lot of coverage in the official Chinese media, but if it's not a success, then the story quickly disappears from the media," says Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based workers' rights NGO. "In this case they did manage to rescue over 100 miners. It's portrayed as a miracle."
Yet, as the rescue efforts drag on, journalists at the scene of the Shanxi mine have reported difficulty speaking with family members or obtaining up-to-date numbers of the total number of fatalities. Twelve miners have been confirmed dead, and another 26 are missing, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. But the total number of missing miners has fluctuated over the ordeal, likely because some of the workers were not counted as regular employees and missing from any official tally of miners in the pit. Chinese investigators suspect the accident was caused when workers broke through to an illegal, unregistered shaft that was filled with water. That flooded the newly dug shaft, trapping 153 miners.
Chinese authorities have struggled for years to control mine disasters. Inspectors have forced the closure of small, illegal mines, but that has put more pressure on larger, more reputable operators, like the state-owned China National Coal Group, which co-owns the Wangjialing mine. And while the annual death totals have declined even as coal production increases, it will likely be years more before the annual total drops below 1,000.
National efforts at improving conditions often hit obstacles at local levels of government, where there are strong incentives to overlook safety problems. "The people who are tasked with doing the investigations are the same people who have financial interests in the mines themselves," says Crothall. "You can't really rely on them to do a thorough or independent job." Mining usually pays much better wages than farming, and in some parts of China's central northern coal belt, the taxes paid by mines make up the bulk of local government revenues.
Despite the U.S. industry's good record, last week's disaster in West Virginia served as a wake-up call that it's not just Chinese operations that may be putting the bottom line before the worker safety. The number of government citations and orders issued for the Upper Big Branch mine more than doubled last year to 515, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. But the mine continued to operate, raising questions about the quality of government supervision and Massey's commitment to safety. Congressman Nick J. Rahall, whose district includes the mine, has called for hearings to determine the disaster's cause.
In Shanxi, the efforts of thousands of rescuers to save the remaining 26 miners have stalled because of extensive flooding, Xinhua reported. As their time underground approaches two weeks, the likelihood of their survival diminishes. For several dozen families, the miracle in Shanxi could still end up a disaster.