A Chinese Cabinet minister sought Wednesday to portray a mining accident that left 181 miners trapped and presumed dead as a natural disaster, deflecting criticism that more could have been done to save the workers.
The miners — 172 in a mine belonging to the Huayuan Mine Co. and nine in a smaller nearby mine — have been trapped since Friday afternoon when heavy rains undermined a river dike.
But questions have been raised about why Huayuan sent miners into the nearly 3,300-foot-deep shaft as the flooding threat grew — and other mines in the area closed.
“The disaster was caused by heavy rain, not problems within the mine, so it was decided that this was a natural disaster,” Civil Affairs Minister Li Xueju said on the sidelines of a news conference in Beijing.
“Sometimes the alert system may not be timely or accurate enough. They did not imagine the rain would be so heavy and they did not imagine that the river bank would leak,” he said.
Riot police were stationed Wednesday for a second day at the mine offices to silence angry relatives of the trapped miners.
Police tape was strung up 35 yards outside the company’s gate. Behind the cordon about a dozen riot police sat with helmets and plastic shields.
About 20 mining company officials, employees and plainclothes security were also on hand.
An information officer for the Tai-an District — which includes Xintai City, 370 miles southeast of Beijing where the mine is located — said he did not know specifically why the riot police had been deployed.
“Some of the families might want to make trouble. This often happens when there is an accident. Look at Monday,” said the official, Wang Dequan.
Tempers boiled over on Monday and several relatives of a missing miner smashed a reception window and display cases at a company office.
China’s coal mine industry is the most dangerous in the world. Coal feeds most of China’s energy needs, but accidents kill an average of 13 miners a day.
State media have reported that there is little hope of survival for the miners.
Another official, Huang Yi, a spokesman with the State Administration for Work Safety, was quoted as saying the mine was not prepared, but he also called it a natural disaster.
The China Youth Daily on Wednesday quoted Huang as saying there have been 15 coal mine floods around China since the beginning of July.
“If the contingency plan and protective measures are complete, the incident might have been avoided. But as far as we know, the Huayuan Coal Mine did not have a complete contingency plan on how to react if the river’s banks burst,” he said.
Some families have been ordered not to leave hotels or talk to other miners’ families, said two relatives of a trapped miner who said they sneaked out of their hotel.
Mining company officials also visited families and told them to stay at home. Some families said they received $265 — more than two months of the average miners’ wages — to keep quiet.
The accident comes at a particularly sensitive time, with China’s Communist Party preparing for a congress held once every five years. Large-scale accidents like the mine flood present a test for the communist leadership to prove it can deliver on pledges to improve farmers’ and workers’ lives.
Li, the civil affairs minister, said the government does not normally pay compensation for people killed by natural disasters, but this accident was “different because it happened during production, so I believe the government and enterprise will give assistance to those injured and killed.”
Many of the families have privately said they believe the miners are dead and want the government to ensure adequate compensation.