Chinese coal-mine blast kills at least 88

Eighty-eight miners were killed and another 36 remained trapped underground after an explosion on Sunday at a coal mine in China’s north-east Heilongjiang province, state press said on Monday.

A total of 221 miners were underground when the cave-in occurred about 9.40pm local time on Sunday at the Dongfeng coal mine, near Qitaihe city in Heilongjiang province, not far from the Russian border with Siberia.

Eighty-eight miners have been confirmed killed, 36 remained trapped and 97 have been rescued, state radio said.

Xinhua news agency said a rescue team of 269 people was involved in the search for those still trapped, and that not all hope was lost.

“There are possibilities for the survival of other trapped miners,” Xinhua said, citing officials at rescue headquarters.

Investigators said the accident was caused by a coal-dust explosion, which knocked out all the ventilation systems in the pit, according to Xinhua.

A coal-dust explosion is often caused when there is a gas blast, which ignites the coal dust suspended in the air or stuck on walls, Professor Rui Susheng from the China Coal Research Institute said.

Heilongjiang Longmei Group, a mining conglomerate of four major state-owned coal businesses with a registered capital of 13-billion yuan ($1,6-billion), owns the Dongfeng mine, Xinhua said.

Although many of the accidents in China’s coal industry occur in illegal mines, the work safety watchdog said the Dongfeng mine is fully licensed.

An official from the Dongfeng mine-production management office said the mine is one of the smaller ones in the Longmei group with an annual capacity of 500 000 tonnes a year.

The accident came as 17 miners trapped in a flooded coal mine in northern Hebei province since Thursday last week were still officially listed as missing, presumed dead.

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 help fuel the nation’s rapid economic growth.

China relies on coal for two-thirds of its energy needs and the government said early this month it intends to increase domestic coal production from 2,1-billion tonnes to 2,4-billion tonnes over the next five years.

More than 6 000 miners died in accidents in China last year, according to previously released government figures. Independent estimates say the real figure could be as high as 20 000.

Xinhua reported four weeks ago that coal-mine fatalities had increased by 8,5% in the first eight months of 2005 compared with the same period last year, without giving the total number.

The government has this year been trying to step-up safety measures for the nation’s coal mines, closing down more than 9 000 illegal operations and suspending another 12 990, according to state press reports.

“However, it remains doubtful whether these efforts will finally pay off, given some worrying signs of lax supervision at provincial and county levels,” the state-run China Daily said in an editorial on Monday.

The central government’s attempts have largely failed because corrupt, profit-driven owners and local governments do not supervise the mines adequately and often conspire to ignore mandates from Beijing.

“It is worrisome that local governments’ preoccupation with economic development may hinder an ongoing safety bid by the central government,” it said.

The Dongmei mine disaster could prove one of the deadliest in recent years for China.

Official reports show there have been six other coal-mine explosions over the past decade to have claimed more than 100 lives each.

However, three of those mass-casualty incidents have occurred over the past 12 months.

A gas explosion at a coal mine in north Shaanxi province on November 28 last year killed 166 workers.

On February 14 this year, 214 miners were killed in a gas explosion at a coal mine in north-east Liaoning province, while the flooding of an illegal coal mine in the southern province of Guangdong killed 123.—AFP

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