Gutted factories, rusting pickaxes and crumbling homes that will soon be abandoned dot the scarred hills in Mentougou — home to Beijing’s last coal mine, which is scheduled to close this year as the city battles choking smog.
One of China’s oldest mining towns, it has powered the capital for nearly 300 years.
However, more than 270 coal mines in the area have been shut down over the past two decades, as China has scrambled to cut carbon emissions and switch to renewable energy sources.
The last remaining mine — which employed about 7,000 workers at its peak — is scheduled to fully close later this year.
“Once the Datai coal mine closes, there won’t be any coal mines in Beijing left,” said Ma Shihui, a miner from Sichuan Province.
Younger workers have already collected their severance checks and moved to cities to find work.
However, hundreds of others like Ma have little hope of finding new jobs due to old age, and have no rights to farmland in their villages.
Ma worked with explosives at the Datai mine since 2016 and earned about 10,000 yuan (US$1,415) per month. Now his family survives on a 1,540 yuan monthly handout from the mining company.
“I’m already 50... If you’re over 45 years old, they don’t want you,” he said.
“My family doesn’t have farmland anymore ... so I can’t go back. Even if you go back, it’s no use, you couldn’t survive,” he added.
Beijing Jinmei Group, the state-owned enterprise that owns the mines near the capital, said that the government-mandated closures would mean the loss of 6 million tonnes of coal production capacity and the “resettlement” of more than 11,000 workers, mostly migrants.
Those left behind like Ma go twice a day to sign an attendance sheet at the mine office. They also help sweep away shredded documents and recycle mining waste.
“I hope the company will be able to arrange some work for me at their other mines in Ningxia or Shandong,” Ma said. “I don’t even mind working as a cleaner.”
Miners with lung diseases from inhaling coal dust are also stuck in the dilapidated town southwest of Beijing, because their government health insurance only covers treatment from hospitals in the area.
A miner from Guizhou surnamed Zhang, who worked at the Datai mine for 30 years, said that he was diagnosed with black lung disease in January last year.
The government has promised 380,000 yuan in compensation for sick mine workers, but the money has not reached many, Zhang said.
About 1,400 workers with occupational illnesses have filed a lawsuit against the mine operator, accusing the firm of siphoning their compensation for work-related injuries.
Calls and faxes to Beijing Jinmei Group on the issue went unanswered.
Liu Sheng, 51, had worked in coal mines since 1989. He was forced to retire in 2012 after being diagnosed with black lung disease.
“The main thing about this kind of illness is lung trouble. It takes a lot of effort to go outside... It can’t be cured,” Liu said. “I’m usually hospitalized five or six times a year.”
Liu now lives on a 4,000 yuan monthly government handout. He is unable to return to his village in Sichuan, because the health insurance card given by the company is only accepted in hospitals in the Mentougou area.
“I came to Beijing when I was 20 and now I’m 50. Beijing is my second home,” Liu said. “It’s unfair for them to ask us to leave now.”
China accounts for half of the world’s demand for coal and almost half of its production.
However, it is switching to greener sources of energy to fight chocking smog and reverse the environmental damage from its coal addiction.
A local government flier said that it plans to turn Mentougou into an eco-park, with “green mountains, blue waters and red tourism,” highlighting the coal town’s role in helping the Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing’s subway line is being extended to reach this far corner in hopes that it would bring curious tourists.
However, so far there are no hotels or even adequate public toilets to cater to visitors.
Earlier attempts to turn local farmsteads into bed and breakfast inns have also failed.
“Mentougou’s economy is in a shambles,” said Dong Xiaoyuan (董曉媛) from Peking University’s Institute on Poverty Research.
“First officials tried to introduce sheep herding, but it ended up harming the already deteriorated environment,” he said. “Haphazard plans only push more people into poverty.”
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