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Mr. Hao is going back to work. The mines have opened again, and his family needs the money. He tells us this, but he also asks us not to tell his son that after what proved to be a very short retirement, he’s headed back down into a coal mine.
Hao, who asked that he be identified only by his surname, is a coal miner in Hegang, a mining town in northeastern Heilongjiang province. Like many of the miners in Hegang, Hao is employed at small bituminous coal mine by one of the dozens of private mining companies that operate the area’s hundred or so mines. His mine employs a few hundred people, most of whom — like Mr. Hao — work below the surface.
As an older man, Hao makes 2,000 RMB (about $320) a month doing lighter, logistical tasks like drilling and lighting explosives, but he tells us that young workers capable of withstanding long hours of heavy labor can make more than double that. What nearly all workers at his mine have in common is that they spend their days — or in some cases, nights — in pitch-dark coal mines far below the earth’s surface. Even meals are eaten down there, together, in the black.
Coal mining is a dangerous profession, and China’s coal mines are notoriously perilous. In the ten year span between 2001 and 2011, more than 47,670 Chinese coal miners were killed in mining accidents (for reference, that death toll is approximately equivalent to 11 Chernobyl accidents, or 32 Hurricane Katrinas). Over that same time period, the Chinese government took significant steps to make coal mining safer, and by 2010, China was clocking just under 2,433 coal mining deaths per year, down from nearly 6,000 deaths in 2003.
Even so, Chinese mines are still incredibly dangerous; China accounts for 40 percent of the world’s coal production but nearly 80 percent of its coal mining deaths. When we asked Mr. Hao about his own mine, he told us that it was “relatively safe.” Collapses have happened, but there weren’t many in the mines that he had worked in. “At our mine, there haven’t been many,” he told us, “but other mines have collapsed.”
Hao may have been slightly underselling the point. In fact, Hegang — the town Mr. Hao has lived and mined in for more than thirty years — was the site of one of the worst mining accidents in recent memory. In November of 2009, a Hegang mine exploded, killing 108 miners and injuring 133 more. A subsequent investigation found that the executives in charge of the mine, which was administered by a subsidiary of the Heilongjiang Mining Group, had repeatedly refused orders to cease production in order to implement safety procedures. In early 2012, after a lengthy court process, the mine’s two chief executives were both sentenced to seven years in prison.
Privately-owned coal mines must technically be certified for safety by government inspectors before being legally allowed to operate, but the process is vulnerable to corruption, or even outright circumvention. Mr. Hao tells us that the mine he works in is properly certified. “But there are also mines without these certifications,” he admits. Often, those uncertified mines are the most dangerous.
Even with the recent advances made in safety procedures, it’s clear that China’s government is still concerned about the issue. Coal mines nationwide were shut down for this November’s leadership transition, in part because a major mining disaster during the festivities would have been disruptive and embarassing. In Hegang, Hao says, all the mines were shut down, and when we spoke with his family the first time, the mines hadn’t reopened and he was considering not going back.
His son, who works in Beijing, was overjoyed at the news of his father’s retirement from the coal mining profession, which he knows can be extremely dangerous. When we spoke to Mr. Hao again in a subsequent interview and he told us he planned to begin mining again, he also asked that we not tell his son, who — if he ever finds out — is likely to be equal parts worried and livid.
Both father and son are intimately aware of the immediate dangers presented by coal mining; Hao himself was once seriously injured on the job when a cart fell onto his leg at the end of a shift. But when we ask about other health risks, both men talk about the food (which apparently is quite disgusting, and often covered in soot). Neither of them mention cancer.
According to data released by the Chinese Ministry of Health in 2011, cancer is China’s leading cause of death. Among cancers, lung cancer is now the most common, and lung cancer rates have been growing with alarming speed. The five-fold growth in rates since the 1970s might be partially attributable to smoking, but lung cancer rates in Beijing have climbed by 60 percent over the past decade despite a lack of change in smoking rates.
Coal-burning power plants and coal stoves are among the contributors to the thick clouds of smog that cloak many of China’s cities, and are almost certainly affecting cancer rates there. But as grim as the pollution situation is in cities, miners in towns like Hegang are actually much worse off, even if they don’t smoke or cook with coal at home.
There are three kinds of coal that are commonly mined; bituminous coal (also known as “black coal”), lignite (“brown coal”), and anthracite (sometimes called “clean coal”). China’s production of anthracite and lignite has increased in recent years, but both still account for a relatively minor percentage of the country’s coal production (18.5 and 13.5 percent, respectively). The vast majority (69.2 percent) of China’s coal mining operations, including those in Hegang, are mining bituminous coal.
Unfortunately, studies have shown bituminous coal dust to be remarkably carcinogenic. A 2012 study of homes in Xuanwei, China, found that people whose households cooked with bituminous coal are far more likely to develop lung cancer (18-20% likely) than those who did not (0.5% likely). Men are 36 times more likely to die of lung cancer if they lived in homes that cooked with bituminous coal; women are 99 times more likely. Unsurprisingly, these results are also apparent in miners; a 2011 study of coal miners in Xuanwei found that coal miners also are at increased risk of lung cancer, and that the younger a miner starts and the longer he stays in the mines, the more likely he is to develop cancer. Specific rates varied based on subjects’ family histories and exposure to carcinogens outside of work, but in general, coal miners were found to be at least twice as likely to develop lung cancer as regular citizens, and in some instances the increase in risk for miners was even higher.
Cancer isn’t the only disease coal miners are at serious risk of contracting, either. Pneumoconiosis, better known as Black Lung Disease, kills thousands of Chinese coal miners each year. Other potentially-deadly lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, also seem to kill coal miners at a higher-than-average rate.
All of the miners we spoke to, including Mr. Hao, were aware that breathing in coal dust wasn’t great for your lungs, but none of them were aware that their work seriously elevated their risk of developing lung cancer. Some told us that they had noticed a lot of coworkers came down with respiratory illnesses sooner or later, but some said they hadn’t noticed any particular patterns of illness.
Small coal mines in China are often poorly-ventilated, and there’s only so much you can ventilate a deep coal mine, anyway. Mr. Hao’s son told us that his father and other miners do sometimes wear masks, but that isn’t much consolation:
[The masks] are completely useless. Coal dust is everywhere, you can’t prevent yourself from breathing it […] When my father comes home at the end of the day he is completely covered in black dust. Coal soot gets on his face, in his nostrils, in his ears, in his eyes…sometimes you can’t even wash all of it off.
The soot also gets in his lungs, of course, and with thirty years of mining already under his belt, Mr. Hao — who has not been screened — has a high risk of developing lung cancer even if he never sets foot in a coal mine again. He knows coal mining is a deadly profession, and is grateful to have made it this far without any major accidents. But though the number of deadly accidents is dropping, cancer risk rates climb with each successive year a miner works. Many miners who escape being buried alive or killed in explosions will ultimately still fall victim to coal mining’s slowest and quietest danger: lung cancer.
When a miner gets cancer, or even gets injured on the job, results can vary. Mr. Hao tells us smaller mining companies don’t provide mine workers with insurance, or even regular contracts, so if you get sick, whether or not you’ll get financial help with your medical bills from the company is very much up for grabs. In his experience, Hao tells us, the people who get larger compensation settlements tend to be the people capable of making a fuss and causing trouble for the company if their demands aren’t met. If you and your family members can’t raise a stink, he says, you’ll get less money.
In his own case, Hao was able to get some compensation for his leg injury, but not enough to cover his bills. The company said that by riding a cart out of the mine at the end of the day when another cart crushed his leg, he was violating company policy. Hao contends that requiring miners to walk out of the mine at the end of a shift is unsafe, as the climb is dark and perilous and the workers are generally exhausted, but he still wound up paying some of the cost for his treatment out of pocket. If Hao does develop lung cancer or another mining-related illness, he will likely face the same problem all over again.
***China has made great progress in reducing the number of accidents in coal mines, but it will also need to address the environmental and health risks the mining of coal, especially bituminous coal, produces. In addition to higher risks of lung diseases and cancer both among miners and anyone who breathes in coal soot on a regular basis, and in addition to the clouds of soot shrouding most of China’s major cities, coal mining can have a devastating affect on the environment in other ways.
For example, coal mining is extremely water-intensive, and coal mining operations can exacerbate droughts and disrupt local ecosystems. This can lead to desertification, especially in China’s far West, where coal is easy to find but water is in short supply. Already, wetlands and grasslands in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere have been dried up and destroyed to support coal mining.
Deadly and destructive though it may be, China will not — cannot — kick its reliance on coal anytime soon. Coal still generates 80 percent of China’s electricity, and though the country has invested heavily in green technologies like wind and solar power, its rapidly-growing energy needs have offset the gains from those fields, meaning that green energy development has not really affected the power industry’s demand for coal.
If China must rely on coal, it should continue to address the plague of deadly explosions and collapses that remains prevalent, especially in illegal mines, but it must also push to improve health standards for coal miners. There are ways to do this, like mandating better ventilation, high-quality respirators, and even dust monitors that warn miners when they’re breathing too much coal dust.
The government could also move beyond prevention and attempt to do something for the miners who have already contracted lung diseases related to their contact with coal. Mandating that all companies — even the small private mines — provide real medical insurance that shields workers from heavy financial burdens in the event of work-related accidents and illnesses would be a good start. Lower medical bills will likely be little consolation to the thousands and thousands of miners who will be killed by lung cancer, black lung, and other respiratory illnesses over the coming decades, but it would, Mr. Hao agrees, be better than nothing.
By C. Custer and L. Li, with additional reporting by Jonathan Silin.
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