updated 1/3/2006 9:41:33 AM ET 2006-01-03T14:41:33

Small, privately owned and worked by moonlighting farmers, the coal mine in central China's Xin'an County was like hundreds throughout the country. And, like thousands of Chinese miners, those below ground faced the daily danger of injury or death.

On Dec. 2, a nearby river overflowed, sending water pouring into the mine and drowning 35 miners.

In most other countries, it would have been the deadliest industrial accident of the year. But in China, where more than 5,000 coal miners die on the job annually, it went largely unnoticed at a time when a pair of bigger disasters killed a total of 260 miners.

The big accidents grab public attention, but small mines like Xin'an County account for 73 percent of reported deaths.

Experts say if Chinese leaders are to make good on repeated promises to improve safety, they must start there. And according to the government's own statistics, they are failing to make progress.

"To deal with the problem, it takes manpower and constraints on the production track," said Davitt McAteer, a former U.S. assistant labor secretary for mine safety and frequent visitor to Chinese mines.

"But China lacks an inspection force that can come in and shut down operations when the conditions demand it," McAteer said. "They'll say they close lots (of unsafe mines), but they're not really serious."

U.S. reaches record low fatality rate
In the United States, 22 coal miners were killed on the job in 2005 — a record low, according to Suzy Bohnert, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

In 2004, the number of U.S. coal mining deaths was 28.

On Monday, a coal mine explosion in West Virginia that may have been sparked by lightning trapped 13 miners 260 feet below ground.

In China, most accidents are blamed on mine managers who ignore safety rules and hide fatalities, often with the help of officials who own a stake in the mines they are charged with regulating.

The government said this year it would close 7,000 small mines — about one-quarter of the country's total — in an effort to improve safety.

The 2004 China coal mining death count — officially just over 6,000 — represented 80 percent of all world coal fatalities.

"We will concretely improve work safety in our coal mines, in the spirit of being highly responsible for people's lives," Premier Wen Jiabao said in March.

But Han Dongfang, an activist with the Hong Kong-based group China Labor Bulletin, sees an official sleight of hand in the pledges to close unsafe mines.

"You have to understand how it is done," he said. "Officials will just subcontract their shares to friends. Everybody makes money, and safety is forgotten."

Authorities have not released details of an investigation into the Xin'an County deaths, but they have detained 10 mine managers and county safety officials, suggesting investigators suspect collusion.

Yan Changying, a county police official, would say only that those detained are suspected of "causing a major accident."

In its latest initiative, the government announced that mines will have to post safety bonds to pay for rescue work and compensation to families of dead miners.

That came after an announcement in December that two provincial vice governors had been dismissed and 96 officials were being prosecuted for negligence or corruption in six mine accidents that killed a total of 528 people over the past 13 months.

The country's State Administration of Work Safety says that while a multiyear safety campaign has reduced deaths in other industries, the fatality rate in coal mines is unchanged.

Demand ‘makes the problem worse’
The government has tried to make investments in safety seem more attractive by sharply raising the levels of compensation that mines must pay to the families of the dead.

But experts say Beijing faces an uphill fight in trying to make its safety initiatives stick in the countryside, where small coal mines generate money for struggling communities.

Following deaths in a village mine, the report will often say it was operating in defiance of orders to close for safety violations.

And coal prices have risen sharply over the past two years, giving mine owners an incentive to take risks and keep digging, said Constance Thomas, an official of the Beijing office of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations-affiliated group.

"The more profitable it is to mine, the harder it is to keep mines closed," she said. "When coal prices are high, safety becomes more difficult."

Prices are expected to stay high, pushed up by surging power demand and official efforts to rein in oil imports, which in 2004 cost China's treasury an estimated $60 billion.

The official China Coal Industry Association says consumption is due to rise by 6 percent in 2005 to 2.1 billion tons.

"When you have huge demand, it just makes the problem worse," Thomas said. "Enforcement isn't easy."

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