China hit by another coal-mine disaster

Fifty-one miners are missing and feared dead after a gas explosion early on Thursday ripped through an illegally operating coal mine near Chengde city in northern China’s Hebei province, the government said.

“At around 3am on May 19, a gas-explosion accident occurred at the Nuanerhe mining company in Hebei province’s Chengde city,” the State Administration of Mine Safety said on its website.

“Fifty-one mine workers were in the mine shaft and it is not clear if they are alive.”

Local officials said 85 miners were working underground at the time and 34 were rescued as local and provincial leaders rushed to the scene to oversee rescue operations.

A group of experts has also been dispatched to investigate the cause, the administration said.

A heavy police presence surrounded the mine, with access blocked, and the mood in the local Bajia township was sombre as relatives awaited news of their loved ones.

“Right now, we don’t know what is happening. They haven’t told us anything,” said a shopkeeper surnamed Zhang, whose shop is opposite the mine. “All we know is they are still looking for people.”

The Nuanerhe mine is the biggest employer in the area and hires about 500 miners in a workforce of about 1 000, and a Chengde municipality official said they held an emergency meeting on Thursday morning to work out a rescue plan.

“First we need to determine the density of the gas in the shaft, and restore ventilation in the mine,” a spokesperson of the Chengde city government said.

“Then we’ll send rescue workers down into the mine and figure out ways to conduct rescue operations,” he said, declining to give his name.

China Central Television said the privately owned mine was operating illegally and local authorities had twice ordered it to halt production for failing to obtain necessary safety licences.

China relies on coal for 70% of its energy needs, leading many mine owners to disregard safety in order to meet demand.

Statistics from China’s National Development and Reform Commission show output of coal jumped by 17,34% to 1,96-billion tonnes last year.

But still this was not enough, with power outages a regular occurrence in parts of the country last year, and more forecast for this year.

Exacerbating the problem is that many miners are farmers turned migrant workers who are not well trained, said head of the State Administration of Work Safety Li Yizhong, who travelled to the scene after the explosion.

Investigations into the most deadly Chinese mine tragedy in recent years, which left 214 workers dead in February, concluded that a disregard for worker safety by profit-focused operators was to blame.

China’s mines are notoriously dangerous, with official figures showing more than 6 000 miners died in accidents last year, although independent estimates say the real figure could be up to 20 000.

An explosion in a coal mine in south-western China’s Sichuan province killed 21 miners last Thursday.

The state administration’s Li predicted China’s mining industry will not until 2020 reach the level of safety seen in “medium-developed countries”, by which China means countries such as South Korea.

China has said it will pump $1,8-billion into improving coal-mine safety this year.—Sapa-AFP

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