While world attention has been transfixed by the rescue of 33 copper mine workers in Chile, China, the world’s largest coal producer and consumer, and which sits on a seventh of the world’s coal reserves, has announced that it shut down more than 1,350 small and dangerous coal mines in the first nine months of this year.
The closures are part of a drive to cut the industry’s appalling accident rate. China’s coal mines are the world’s most deadly; an estimated 20,000 of the country’s 5 million coal miners die each year in accidents such as this, though the official numbers are barely a seventh of that and falling: 2,631 deaths in 2009, down from more than 6,000 in 2004. Small and unregulated mines have the laxest safety precautions.
The country’s reliance on coal for the power generation that has driven its growth over the past three decades has until recently meant that safety has played a distant second fiddle to production. As recently as six years ago, four out of five coal miners killed in accidents worldwide died in a mine in China. That said, China’s largest coal mining companies now have safety records to compare with the best in the world.
The closures also support the official drive to reduce green house gas emissions by cutting the mining and use of highly polluting brown coal and lignite, and to preserve fast disappearing agricultural land which mining operations make unsuitable for farming.
The National Energy Administration says this year’s closures have taken out 125 million tones of outdated production capacity so far. The target is to close more than 1,500 small mines this year, and the shut-downs are being hurried forward to meet it. The longer term goal is to close all small mines by 2015. This was part of a ten year plan launched in early 2006 to reorganize the country’s fragmented coal industry — then 28,000 coal mines, of which only 2,000 were state owned — into five or six large groups such as Shenhua Group, China’s largest coal producer, China National Coal, the second largest, and Pingshuo Coal Industry Corp, the largest exporter. There will be fewer than 10,000 small mines left by the end of this year at current rates of closure.