An explosion tore through a coal mine in northern China on Wednesday, leaving at least 74 workers dead, the government said, the third disaster in recent weeks involving scores of miners.
The latest incident highlights the Chinese government’s continuing battle with mine safety despite repeated crackdowns and pledges by the leadership to improve conditions.
Last year, more than 6,000 miners were killed in fires, floods, cave-ins and explosions, making China’s shafts the world’s deadliest. Corruption, lax safety rules and poor equipment are among factors often blamed for the accidents.
Wednesday’s explosion occurred at the privately run Liuguantun Colliery in Tangshan, a city in Hebei province, said an official with the Tangshan Coal Mine and Safety Bureau who would only give his surname Zhang.
Eighty-two escaped on their own and 32 miners were immediately rescued but three of those later died, Xinhua said. The bodies of 71 miners had been recovered from the mine by early Thursday, bringing the death toll to 74, it said.
The government has shut down thousands of unsafe mines and punished mine owners who put profits ahead of lives. But China’s enormous need for energy, stemming from its booming economy, has complicated the issue.
Mine accidents are reported on a near-daily basis, some involving huge death tolls. The worst in recent years occurred in February in northeastern Liaoning province, when an explosion killed 214 miners.
On Tuesday, rescuers recovered the body of the last miner missing in a Nov. 27 blast in Heilongjiang province, also in the northeast, bringing the number of fatalities in that mishap to 171.
The explosion at the Dongfeng Coal Mine was sparked when airborne coal dust caught fire, according to state media.
Inattention to safety protocols
Officials tried unsuccessfully for days to get an accurate count of how many miners were underground when the blast occurred, underscoring the mismanagement and inattention to safety protocols that plague the industry.
The accident prompted Premier Wen Jiabao to declare over the weekend that the industry was “chaotic and without safety enforcement in place,” according to Li Yizhong, the director of China’s State Administration of Work Safety.
Also Wednesday, rescuers at the Sigou Coal Mine in central Henan province were trying to save 42 miners trapped underground after the shaft flooded, Xinhua said.
Divers have been dispatched for the search, and rescuers have fed a microphone into the mine to listen for signs of life, Xinhua said. So far, there has been no indication that the workers survived, it said.
A total of 76 miners were working underground at the time and 34 escaped.
Authorities have detained 10 of the mine’s officials, including the owner who had fled but was captured after a “massive manhunt,” Xinhua said.
As part of the crackdown, punishments are often meted out to local mine or government officials, many who try to escape the scene.
Four officials in Hebei were given three-year prison sentences with reprieves Tuesday for dereliction of duty in a coal mine fire last year that killed 70 workers, Xinhua said.
Another five officials in the same province have been detained in a Nov. 6 cave-in where 33 miners died, the agency said.
“An initial investigation showed that the five officials had turned a blind eye to safety problems in the unlicensed mines and allowed their operation,” Xinhua said.
In the Dongfeng explosion, the boss of the state-owned mine was detained along with another official. He was deeply criticized for his role in the incident — days after being declared a role model in mine management, state media said.