Tunlan mine blast exposes safety challenge

By Jianjun Tu

A methane blast at the Tunlan coal mine in Shanxi on February 22 killed 78 miners and the last body was not recovered until five days later.

China’s numerous collieries, most of them township and village enterprises (TVEs), have long been the world’s most deadly. Since the inception of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, official sources have put China’s cumulative coal mining fatalities at more than 250,000, and independent estimates are much higher. While the official coal mining death tolls in 2008 were 3,210, a 54% drop compared with 6,995 in 2002, China’s 2008 fatality rate of 1.182 deaths per million tonnes of coal mined means that the world’s largest coal producer’s safety standard still lags far behind the second largest one, the United States, by at least 55 years.[1]

Due to the recent economic slowdown, China has been experiencing a potential coal surplus for the first time since the late 1990s, which should offer a long-awaited window of opportunity to address its safety challenge. Yet, the deadly Tunlan accident has revealed that the fundamental illness of China’s safety governance mechanisms remains unscratched by scrutiny.

The Tunlan coal mine blast
Unlike most of China’s coal mining accidents, the blast at Tunlan has nothing to do with TVE mines, which account for about one third of China’s coal output, but 77% of its coal mining fatalities [2]. Instead, the Tunlan Mine boasts one of the best mining facilities in China. Its parent company, Shanxi Coking Coal Group (SCCG), is China’s largest and the world’s second-biggest coking coal producer.

Tunlan is not only the first SCCG mine to utilize fully mechanized mining equipment, but also the first colliery in the world to utilize the “Large Cross Section Supporting Technology”, which is Tunlan’s proprietary invention and won the first class prize of the National Technical Advancement Award.

Being a gaseous mine with fugitive methane emissions rate at about 20 cubic meters per tonne of coal mined, Tunlan has installed a highly efficient ventilation system, and utilized coal bed methane to fuel its boilers. Many of Tunlan’s dedicated underground inspectors are equipped with state-of-the-art methane detectors, which further eliminate the possibility of explosion. Since 2004, Tunlan has prided itself for zero mining fatalities. Not only were Chinese officials surprised by the bloody explosion at one of the country’s best collieries; many survivors were caught tragically unprepared.

Another unique quality of the Tunlan blast rests on how the accident was covered by the Chinese media, regarded as the propaganda machine of the state and ruling party. While the reporting of major catastrophes is a sensitive topic under heavy government control, the Chinese media nevertheless have become increasingly critical toward coal mining accidents.

The authorities classified the country’s most deadly coal mine accident, at Laobaidong, in Shanxi, in 1960, which killed 682 miners, as a “state secret”; it was eventually disclosed by China Coal Post in 1998 [3]. On July 17, 2001, when 81 coal miners died in an inundation accident in Nandang County, courageous reporters working for Yangcheng Evening News and other media risked their lives to get the story for the outside world [4].

Yet, in recent years, Chinese media has become less critical on sensitive topics, which is especially evident in the news coverage of Tunlan blast.

Drivers underlying the catastrophe
Though the February 22 blast happened at a state-owned mine, the most important contributing factor is the authorities’ inability to develop an effective strategy to manage China’s TVE mines. After China was opened to the outside world in 1979, state-owned mines were unable to meet burgeoning demand due to heavy welfare obligations to their bloated workforces and retirees.

Beijing was forced to allow private investment into the coal industry. In 1991, the number of TVE mines reached an astonishing 100,000, and the share of coal production by TVE mines grew to 46% in 1997 from 17% in 1979 [5], which soon led to problems such as tax evasion, environmental degradation and mounting accidents.

In the late 1990s, lured by a temporary coal surplus, Beijing launched a national campaign to close TVE mines. Since then, China’s coal industry has been a love-and-hate relationship between state and private enterprises: 1) with governmental favoritism, state-owned mines expanded rapidly; 2) Beijing ordered targets for TVE mines’ closure; 3) fearing loss of tax revenues and often personal gains, local officials quietly resisted Beijing’s orders, and many TVE mines that were supposed to be closed still secretly operate; 4) the burgeoning economy needed much more coal than state enterprises could meet, and Beijing realized it had no choice but to loosen permit requirements; and 5) TVE mines flourished in the market again.

Though TVE mines are the de facto swing producer in the Chinese coal market, with a critical role to meet any shortfall between domestic demand and what state-owned mines can produce, their contribution to the Chinese economy has been intentionally downplayed in the past.

Instead, TVE mines are the easiest targets whenever it becomes necessary to point fingers. Because the number of TVE mines is being reduced to 10,000 by 2010, the private coal mining industry as a whole has no incentive to make long-term investments to improve mines safety. Overproduction (typically 150% to 300% of design capacity) and falsification of death tolls whenever possible are the norms. While TVE mines are the weakest link of China’s coal industry, many state-owned mines are expanding at breakneck pace and often produce much more than they should without adequate safety margins.

To solve its safety challenge, Guangdong, one of the most developed provinces and a major coal consumer in China, shut down all collieries within its geographic boundary in 2005. Though undeniably effective, such an administrative decision not only deeply hurt the interests of all stakeholders in Guangdong’s coal industry and wasted indigenous resources, but also put extra pressure on China’s over-loaded transportation infrastructure. In addition, the subsequent transferring of sizable death tolls from a wealthy coastal province to much poorer hinterland areas such as Shanxi is also morally questionable.

Similarly, in the wake of the Chinese Spring Festival, annual sessions of people’s congresses, and people’s political consultative conferences, TVE mines have been closed across the country just for the sake of political sensitivity.

In January 2009, though China’s national coal output declined by 11% on a year-over-year basis, production by key state-owned mines actually grew by 12% on a similar basis [6]. As a result, many state-owned mines were operating beyond their safety margins in early 2009.

Though Tunlan’s annual capacity was retrofitted from 4.0 to 5.0 million tonnes in 2005, an anonymous source cited 4.0 million tonnes as Tunlan’s optimal output level, and 4.5 million tonnes as its safety threshold, beyond which equipment overcapacity and worker fatigue would make its operations prone to accidents. In 2008, Tunlan produced 4.62 millions tonnes of coal, which already exceeded the alleged threshold, so whether the extensive TVE mine closures early this year has encouraged Tunlan to operate beyond its safety margin is a legitimate question that deserves attention during the accident investigation.

The heavy death tolls at Tunlan are also a direct result of the low productivity of China’s coal industry. Considered to be one of China’s best collieries, Tunlan is actually not exceptional in this regard and as many as 436 miners were crowding its tunnels when the blast occurred.

To counter individual accidents that were causing heavy fatalities, the Shanxi government in 2005 put limits on the number of miners allowed to work at an underground colliery in accordance with its design capacity. For a 0.09 million tonne mine, the maximum number of allowable miners is 29. For a 0.9 million tonne mine, the limit is set at 99, instead of 290, because of the expected economy of scale [7]. Given Tunlan’s design capacity of 5 million tonnes, 436 underground miners at one shift do not even meet the expected minimum productivity standard implied by Shanxi government’s 2005 regulation.

To make matters worse, both Tunlan’s investment on safety equipment and emergency training for its miners are insufficient. When the blast occurred, Tunlan’s methane alarm system did not set off a signal. While the accident at Tunlan was a localized methane explosion, the number of miners that were directly killed was not so high. Yet if the evacuation had been implemented under an ideal scenario (for example, well-trained miners with adequate protection), the final death toll would have been far less than the actual level.

Unfortunately, many first-round survivors still had no clue what had happened even after they were ordered to evacuate; some did not at first wear their self-rescue equipment. For those who remembered such a procedure, several of them were reported to have fainted when they rushed through the mine shaft. As a result of such a messy evacuation, all 340 miners evacuated from the mine showed symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. Of 114 miners hospitalized, 11 died and 26 were found to be in critical conditions.

To further complicate the matter, the lack of qualified employees is endemic to China’s coal industry. Low incomes, highly undesirable work conditions and negative exposure in the Chinese media make it extremely difficult for Chinese collieries to attract and retain qualified employees, which creates a shortage of the expertise required to raise mine safety standards.

According to the Safety Training Center of the SCCG, more than 80% of Tunlan’s trained safety inspectors, arguably the most important position for safety operations, only received middle school education, and none of them has a college or higher level degree [8]. As Tunlan is actually one of the best state-owned collieries in China, the picture of staff qualification is far bleaker for other coal mining enterprises, especially China’s numerous TVE mines.

Is there a way out?
Given the large size of operating collieries in China, Beijing’s efforts to reduce the number of operating mines is legitimate. Yet, instead of blindly closing coal mines whenever a major accident happens in the adjacent region or just for the sake of avoiding political sensitivity, the authorities should take each mine’s unique conditions into consideration even if a safety rectification campaign is necessary.

At present, Beijing plans to reduce the number of “small mines” (a politically correct terminology for TVE mines) to 10,000 by 2010. At the same time, shutting down a coal mine based solely on its capacity is not only unfair for small collieries that strive to meet safety standards but also encourages more to operate illegally across the country, which will have a detrimental impact on the accounting methods used in calculating Chinese coal statistics.

TVE mines are widely regarded as the black sheep of China’s coal industry, and private colliery owners are often portrayed by the media as rude, self-aggrandizing and tax-evading upstarts. Yet, since 1978, TVE mines have provided more than 35% of China’s cumulative coal output to fuel China’s burgeoning economy [9], and have become an indispensable part of China’s energy sector.

They were always Beijing’s last resort whenever a coal supply shortage occurred due to the flexibility of their operations. As a result of the extremely complex geological structure of China’s coal resources, a large portion of Chinese coal deposits are only suitable for small-scale underground mining operations. Without a reasonable presence of private enterprises, the level of competition required for long-term healthy development of China’s coal mining industry cannot be ensured.

Further, TVE mines are important taxpayers in many coal-producing regions, they employ large number of migrant workers, and are important to China’s social stability. Not only the governmental favoritism towards state-owned mines needs to be reconsidered, the indispensable role of TVE mines to the Chinese economy should also be formally recognized.

The most formidable measurement imposed by Beijing regarding safety management so far may be the “The Safety Framework Governing Resignation of Responsible Officials”. Meng Xuelong, the former governor of Shanxi, was the first provincial cadre in China to resign under such a safety framework after a major mining-related accident in September 2008. Following Meng’s resignation, Beijing appointed Wang Jun, the former director of the State Administration of Work Safety, as the acting governor of Shanxi. While Wang Jun’s political ascendancy in Shanxi has shown Beijing’s determination to reign in China’s chaotic coal industry, the Tunlan blast nevertheless demonstrates that the “top-down” punitive measurements used toward government officials alone are insufficient to solve China’s mounting safety challenges.

As the Chinese economy becomes increasingly market-oriented, Beijing should adopt an alternative approach that can be described as “enforceable sticks with sufficient carrots”. While punitive measurements for safety violation are an indispensable component to solve China’s safety challenges, enforceability should be a prerequisite for introducing such enactment.

For instance, introducing overly ambitious targets (for example, TVE mine closures) is a very counterproductive practice that should be avoided. More importantly, a legal and taxation environment featuring transparency and stability should be nurtured to create a fair playground for all coal enterprises, especially TVE mines. Only if such types of carrots are made available can sufficient resources in the private coal mining industry be directed towards safety investment and long-term growth instead of attention being spent on beating around the rules and colluding with local officials.

From: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China_Business/KE19Cb01.html

1. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, US Department of Labor, coal mining fatality rates in the US were 1.191 and 1.041 in 1952 and 1953, respectively.
2. Production share is based on 2008 data from the China Coal Transportation and Marketing Association, fatality share is based on 2007 data from the SAWS.
3. He, Y. (1998). “Wen Cangmang Dadi (Report of China’s Most Deadly Coal Mining Accident),” China Coal Post.
4. Zhao, S. (2004). Nandan Mining Accident: Case Study of the Struggling News Coverage, in Investigating China: Stories behind the Headlines. Chinese Fangzheng Publishing House: Beijing.
5. China Coal Industry Yearbook, various years.
6. Source: China Coal Transport and Distribution Association (CCTD).
7. Inter-ministry Office on Coal Mine Methane Accident Prevention (2006). “Shanxi Limits Number of Coal Miners Working Underground.” Coal Mine Methane Prevention. Issue 32.
8. Website of the Safety Training Centre of the SCCG, at www.xsmdap.com/ns.php
9. China Coal Industry Yearbook, various years / CCTD.

JianJun (Kevin) Tu (jjtu@mkja.ca) is a Vancouver-based senior energy and environmental consultant, and a research associate of the Canadian Industrial Energy End-Use Data and Analysis Centre.

(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)

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