Safety Concerns Don't Slow China's Coal Boom

 

Coal is literally powering China's seemingly unstoppable rise to superpower status, but not without costs to people and land. NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

At the Datong coal mine in Chongqing Province, as in mines all over China, they are working around the clock. At least a couple of times a week, (and certainly with an American reporter preparing to join a crew of miners at the coal face) the shift begins with a safety briefing and a chorus of safety slogans, punctuated by the men punching their fists in the air.

"I am proud to be a coal miner here," the men chant. "We have only one life to live and safety is the most important thing."

Actually, China has the worst coal mine safety record in the world. Only two months ago, 105 men were killed in one mine. Last year, approximately 3,800 miners were killed in accidents.

This despite China's claim that it has closed more than 10,000 of the country's most dangerous mines.

The first leg of our journey is straight down in the cage. The trip, some 1,200 feet, takes just over a minute. We walk and ride a couple of pommel lifts deeper and about two miles into the mine.

It takes almost an hour before we reach a small tunnel, the ceiling of which is supported by steel beams, held in place by thick cylinders, raised by pneumatic power. There is about four and a half feet of headroom; and we crawl, crab-like for about 150 yards. Two members of a three-man crew are operating a gigantic drill.

The bit is about 8 to 10 feet long. As the drill chews into the coal face, the third member of the crew holds up a cell-phone-sized device that measures the release of coal gas into the tunnel.

When I ask one of the miners whether his wife doesn't resent the fact that he's been forced to work while the rest of China celebrate the recent Lunar New Year's holiday, he laughs and says, "She likes the money."

China, which until last year was a net exporter of coal, will, it's estimated, have to import 15 million tons more this year than it sends overseas. The hardest winter in decades and a ravenous economic engine are placing a huge demand on China's coal industry. It's a simple and brutal equation: The country's blistering economy has been growing at 10 percent a year. It's a pace the government is determined to maintain.

Last year, the Datong mine produced 1.5 million tons. They've been given a new target of 2.3 million tons annually.

The Chinese government is under huge pressure to improve mine safety and to reduce pollution. But 80 percent of China's power is generated by burning coal. China's leadership in Beijing may be less dependent on popular support than their American counterparts in Washington; but they're getting the same message: "It's the economy, stupid."

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