Coal Mining Accidents, Corruption, and Complacency

If you’re not aware of the massive flaws inherent in China’s coal mining industry, it’s probably because coal mining accidents are so ubiquitous here that many people (including the media) just tune them out. I had been intending to write something about this for some time when I stumbled across this post by Zhao Shilong addressing the issue with more statistical depth and background information than I ever could have brought to bear.

Translation

“There’s been a coal mining accident in XX, several dozen people are dead. Do you want to send someone to investigate it?”

“Only a several dozen dead? It’s not big enough news, don’t bother.”

The above sentence is something I heard someone who holds a high position in the actually say once.

But we can’t just look at that sentence and condemn the cold-heartedness of the news media. There really are too many mining disasters, so many that if the number of people killed doesn’t reach a hundred, the story doesn’t interest anyone anymore. It’s been over a hundred years since the United States had a coal mining disaster in which more than a hundred people died, but for us, at most we go a year between accidents where at least one hundred die, and sometimes there are several such accidents in a single year.

A famous weekly publication in Beijing once had a debate about whether to continue reporting on coal mining disasters at all, because from their perspective, aside from the time, place, casualty numbers, and a few other details, the causes and the general story of each accident could just be copied and pasted from one story to the next.

Last week, a coal mining accident occurred in the United States, in West Virginia, and 29 people died. The US President Obama made an announcement to the country, reading a list of the names of each person who died and conveying the entire nation’s grief. This accident was their first in several decades; the last coal mining accident in West Virginia, which was in 1984, left 13 people dead.

Obama said ((I am translating his words from the Chinese, as I was unable to quickly track down a transcript of his speech at the miners’ memorial service.)), “these miners represented the best of America. Our nation cannot tolerate people losing their lives just for doing their jobs. We cannot bring back the 29 lives that were lost, so our duty here is to make sure that this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen again.”

Obama said, “I cannot accept that the lives of coal miners is just one of the prices of the mining industry.”

These words shows why America is why America is great and powerful, and why people want to go there.

America is second only to China in the world in coal mining. Because of this respect for life, in recent years, the mortality rate for every billion tons of coal produced in the US is consistently under 0.03%. Conversely, China is a “double champion”, boasting the highest overall number of coal mining deaths in the world and the highest coal mining death rate proportionally. Of the major coal mining accidents in the world (accidents where more than ten people die), 90% occur in China.

Since 2000, China has lost at least a thousand coal miners every year. In between 2002 and 2004, the number of deaths per year climbed above 6000, 200 times the number in the US for the same time period. In 2009, China lost 2630 coal miners, 77 times more than the US. In the long term, China’s output only amounts for 35% of the world’s coal, but China has 80% of the world’s coal mining deaths. Every year four times the number of coal miners die in China as die in the entire rest of the word combined. It’s clear there is a huge problem in management, stemming largely from the collaboration of government and commercial interests [that leads to] corruption and incompetence.

Pushed into a corner, the government came out with the “tied-together” system ((a State Council regulation passed on July 7th of this year.)), which requires officials and management level employers to go down into the mines with workers on a regular basis. But in the past month an accident occurred and the people have discovered that the “tied-together” system isn’t strong enough to hold down these slippery officials, who, without exception, are still completely safe.

Comments

Zhao is right, in that it’s difficult to blame the media for not constantly reporting stories that, in essence, are the same thing. And I admit that when I see a headline about coal mining, my eyes often drift away before I even get to the lede — it is a story that we all have read before.

Of course, boredom doesn’t excuse complacency in the face of what might be described as institutionalized disaster. The accident statistics Zhao lays out in his article are evidence enough that the lives of these miners are considered part of the cost of industry, and it seems clear that no one — not the government, not the media, and not us, either — cares all that much about it.

Of course, the State Council did just pass the “tied-together” regulation in early July, but as Zhao says, it hasn’t really had any effect. No officials or high-level management have died in a coal mining accident. Why not? The answer is probably pretty simple: they’re not actually following the regulation and going into the mines at all. Our ChinaGeeks Chinese editor explained it quite nicely with a Chinese idiom: 天高皇帝远. “Heaven is high up, and the emperor is far away.” In other words, the State Council can’t physically be there to force anyone into the mines. And without being forced, how many corrupt officials and wealthy businessmen do you think are going to voluntarily put themselves deep underground in a place that’s dirty, dangerous, and full of poor people?

Stan Abrams wrote a piece on china/divide some time ago called “Why Doesn’t China Respect Life” in which he concluded that these disasters ((He was talking about the melamine scandal, etc., but the logic also applies to coal mining.)) are the products of capitalism excess. He’s almost certainly right. The Yanzhou Coal Mining Co., for example, is one of the top 50 Chinese companies listed in US stock exchanges in terms of highest profit margins. There is money to be made in the coal business. Cutting corners is dangerous, but it saves money, which increases profit. And what’s the worst that can happen. When a disaster happens, as long as you only lose a few dozen miners, it’s “no harm no foul” as far as most people in China are concerned.

The government is never going to be able to force corrupt officials and businessmen into the mines, but it does have tight enough control of business that strict regulations might be able to reset the scales such that cutting corners when it comes to mining safety was no longer profitable. And going at these mining companies via business regulations allows the government to circumvent the legal system which, let’s face it, often isn’t up to the challenge of taking on corrupt local officials and businessmen.

My feeling — and keep in mind that I know almost nothing about business, so this is really just idle thought — is that these regulations should be completely ruthless, and coupled with a small but expert team of government scientists dispatched to investigate major coal mining accidents. If this team finds the accident to have been the result of negligence or incompetence on the part of management, the company should be fined. The fine should be something absolutely crippling regardless of the company’s size or strength. Perhaps for each miner killed, the company should have to pay the equivalent of 1.5% of their yearly total income (not profit). This money can go towards compensation for the families of the miners who were killed, and to pay the scientists on the government inspection teams huge salaries so that they’re difficult for local officials and businessmen to bribe. It’s not perfect, but without a real court system or a way of actually enforcing the new State Council regulations, I doubt there is a perfect way to approach this crisis.

If nothing else, it would certainly shake up the mining industry a bit, as an accident with 30 miners lost would cost a company 45% of their yearly income. Many of these companies have been making large profits for years, and could probably continue to operate through a few disasters; one hopes that by the time their mountains of profits began to run dry, they might have begun to implement some of the safety standards that make American coal mines so (comparatively) safe.

But, like I said, I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination on coal mining or government business regulation. So how can China actually fix this coal mining problem? I leave that to you, and I hope people will pick up the question in the comments section below.

Of course, what the government does is well beyond out control. As people, we can only fight our complacency when it comes to these disasters, and try to see each one for what it really is, not just another headline but a tragedy leaves families shattered and young lives extinguished. And, more often than not, a tragedy that could have been prevented if the companies involved cared a little more about life and a little less about profit.

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0 thoughts on “Coal Mining Accidents, Corruption, and Complacency”

  1. The impression that I’ve been getting from newspaper articles over the years has been that mine collapses tend to happen in small, fly-by-night operations that are trying to squeeze the last little bit out of marginal mines — often mines that had previously been abandoned by larger companies as unprofitable.

    But without statistics, it’s difficult to really understand the situation. It’s been said that 80% of mines in China are unlicensed. What percentage of accidents do these account for? Is it 80%, or is it 99%? Does state ownership make a difference, vs. private ownership? etc.

    Fining mining firms a percentage of profits would simply cause them to break up into smaller companies — one per mine — that can individually go bankrupt. Lawyers specialize in this sort of thing.

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  2. If China can manage internal dissent and the intranet, it could certainly regulate the mining industry and introduce a semblance of effective OH@S.

    Private/public, massive fines and big compensation payout..focussing on a wrong headed arguments.

    It is ****govt corruption pure and simple***.

    http://www.arabtimesonline.com/NewsDetails/tabid/96/smid/414/ArticleID/157553/t/%E2%80%98Corruption%E2%80%99-rules-in-China%E2%80%99s-coal-rich-north,-say-experts/Default.aspx

    Look at the massive rewards for govt officials turning a blind eye to illegal or unsafe operations.

    This county official, along with his family and friends, amassed $44m and 30 something Bejing apartments, and he was just dumb enough to get caught. Others do better at hiding their corrupt proceeds.

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  3. I like the idea of fining the companies for deaths of workers. When I see in news the rich coal bosses and think that they make their money from simple workers’ deaths – I really want to do something bad to them.

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  4. I was a bit late to read this post. But…I believe there is already a national govt regulation that stipulates the amount of compensation to be paid by the company in the case of a death. The problem with this is it has meant that mines try to not report, or under-report, the number of fatalities.

    Re; Tom’s comment, it’s true that a lot of accidents occur in illegal mines, but state-owned fully legit mines also regularly have accidents. As Custer said, the bottom line is profit…flout safety regulations in order to squeeze out as much product as possible.

    As with so many problems in China, I think the real issue is enforcement and supervision of already existing regulations. Corruption at a local level is a major obstacle to this – local officials and mine owners often have significant ties. Local governments also have an interest in high production output, which boosts up local GDP.

    Heads have rolled before (eg. Meng Xuenong), but they often just roll to another govt department. I wonder if the central government could ever use the strength we all know it has to really clean up the industry? Or, like with the environment vs development…something always has to keep the juggernaut rolling. In this case, it’s people.

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  5. You are incorrect about the number of mining disasters in the U.S. In fact, there are major disasters nearly every year. For us, a major disaster consists of the loss of a dozen or half dozen lives at a time. Of course, the majority of mining deaths in the U.S. are due to individual accidents- miners die alone here. Our media does not report on this fact either. Although it is on a smaller scale than in China, the pattern is the same: The number of fatalities has to reach a certain threshold in order to become news.

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