Tue, Feb 12, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Weather crisis cranks up the rickety Chinese mining machine

By Jim Yardley  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DATONG, CHINA

At the mouth of the Tashan mine, one of the largest coal mines in China, men in hard hats waited to begin another shift 400m underground. Lunch break was over. Their faces were smeared with coal dust as a dingy white truck carried them down an underground road to the floor of the mine.

"We're working pretty much all the time," said a man with a small lamp hooked around his neck, before he climbed onto the truck and disappeared into the dark tunnel.

Last Thursday marked the Lunar New Year and ushered in the Year of the Rat. For Chinese families, especially those of migrant workers, the holiday offers an annual opportunity to reunite. Yet for miners here in coal country, New Year was just another workday. Vacations have been canceled. China is too desperate for coal to allow them a day off.

This Lunar New Year will always be remembered in China as the Year of the Storm. Freak snow and ice storms left millions of people without power in southern China, stranded millions of migrant workers trying to get home and exposed the fragility of the country's transportation system and power grid.

The crisis is now abating, but the storm also underscored China's heavy dependence on coal and laid bare the inadequacy of the country's system of producing, pricing and distributing coal to power plants. China is fueled by coal, which accounts for 80 percent of its electricity. But China has shown itself to be just one unexpectedly large storm away from major problems.

"What this storm has exposed is that coal is the backbone of China's energy supply, and the market is currently tightly balanced," said Zhang Chi (張馳), a director at the Beijing office of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "Any disruption may have serious impacts on the economy and on people's daily lives."

OLD-STYLE CAMPAIGN

Faced with electricity shortages in more than half the country, the Chinese Communist Party responded with an old-style mobilization campaign. Roughly 2 million military personnel were mobilized to provide relief aid, help restore power and get trains moving again so that many, if hardly all, the stranded migrant workers could get home by Thursday.

Last week, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) visited the Tashan mine and ordered all state-owned mines to produce more coal, and produce it faster, in order to guarantee supplies for power plants in the south. China's central planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, stated that certain closed mines would be allowed to reopen to help meet demand.

But the short-term emphasis on production glossed over the complexity of the coal situation and raised questions about whether the government was signaling that unsafe mines could be reopened. China has the world's most dangerous mines, and the government has closed thousands of small mines since 2006 in an effort to reduce fatalities by consolidating the industry into larger, more efficient operations.

Last year, the number of mining fatalities dropped by one-fifth to 3,786 deaths, still the highest figure in the world. This week, officials in Beijing insisted that the government's new announcements were not a retreat from its safety priorities. But the Chinese media quickly found operators of closed mines who were recruiting workers and trying to reopen. Meanwhile, 21 miners died in two separate accidents last week, an ominous development for an industry suddenly operating at full throttle.

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