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In China: energy needs vs. mine safety

Beijing announced a series of reforms Tuesday to improve safety in the world's deadliest mines.

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It's the deadliest job in China, sending hundreds of thousands of workers underground each day to dig coal from mines that one labor-rights group has labeled slaughterhouses.

The flooding of a coal mine in Guizhou Province just last week is the latest in an almost constant string of accidents in China. Such mishaps, along with the renewed attention to mining safety in the United States, has built momentum here for action by authorities.

Yet even as the Chinese government pledges more strict safety regulations - vowing again this week to reduce the country's staggering annual count of nearly 6,000 coal-mining deaths - demand is increasing for energy production in the world's fastest-growing major economy. With greater demand comes not safer mines, activists and researchers warn, but bigger, deadlier disasters.

"They have difficulties enforcing the [current] regulations even on the big State mines, where the recent massive disasters have taken place," says Tim Wright, a professor at England's University of Sheffield, who has researched and written extensively on Chinese coal-mining. "The incentive to cut corners is increased with the high price and strong demand for coal."

Coal production in China has surged from less than 1 billion tons in 2000 to around 2 billion tons last year, according to the World Coal Institute. Already, the toll is extracted from miners. While the government reported that overall coal-mining deaths, 5,986 in 2005, were down slightly from the 6,027 recorded a year earlier, the disasters have grown larger in scale, according to the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, a human-rights group that campaigns for Chinese workers.

"Major disasters involving heavy loss of life have just shot up," says Robin Munro, the group's research director. "It's in direct correlation to profits and production. They're ignoring safety in the interest of bringing the coal up to the surface."

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