China's Energy Rush Shatters Village

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 1, 2007

DA ANTOU, China -- Chen Xiao'e was home alone and fast asleep, she recalled, when the windows started to shatter for no apparent reason, like a scene out of a horror movie. "I was frightened out of my wits," Chen said.

That scary night was only the beginning. Pretty soon cracks appeared in the walls, some several inches wide. Then the floor buckled. Ultimately, Chen and her family had to move out and seek shelter elsewhere. Their three-year-old brick home became too dangerous to live in.

The house joined a growing list of buildings in Da Antou that have slumped to one side and split apart over the last several years because of what is happening beneath them. The mountain atop which the village was built has been so honeycombed with underground coal mining that the crust of the earth is giving way.

"The earth below us is hollow because of the coal mining," said Li Xiaozhi, the village paramedic, who has been forced to move his family out of three houses since 2003 and now stays in the local clinic. "Almost every house has cracks now. The only difference is how big they are."

Da Antou, located in Shanxi province about 400 miles southwest of Beijing, has become another victim of China's energy rush. The country's booming economy, with growth of nearly 10 percent a year, has produced a growling hunger for coal, which fuels 70 percent of China's energy needs. To meet the demand, coal companies have become willing to go to almost any lengths -- and hamlets such as Da Antou are paying the price.

More than half the houses in Da Antou have developed cracks, and half the 400 residents have moved away.

Across Shanxi province, countless shafts have penetrated the hillsides where farmers live and plant their corn and wheat. The mines produce mountains of coal, and send truckload after truckload to market along roads covered in black dust. Government officials estimated that more than 7,700 square miles have been hollowed out by miners in Shanxi, leaving the earth riddled with empty caverns and causing the crust to sink in more than 1,800 places.

The underground work is dirty and dangerous, attracting migrant men from villages such as Da Antou and much farther afield. The government's Work Safety Administration reported that 4,746 miners were killed in Chinese coal mine accidents last year, an average of 13 a day. That tally marked a sharp improvement over 2005, when 5,986 were killed in coal shafts. But China's mines remain the world's deadliest.

Most of the explosions and floods that kill miners have occurred in small-scale operations, often run by unlicensed wildcat companies that bribe local officials to overlook safety violations. By cracking down on such mines and forcing them to close, officials said, they have reduced the number of miners killed and hope to push the toll lower still in the years ahead.

But the mining group that came to Kele Mountain in 2003, Sihe Coal, was a big, respectable outfit, with foreign technology and total output of 10 million tons a year across the country. Its arrival caused no consternation in Da Antou, farmers here said. They had long since grown used to seeing mines dug into the rugged Shanxi hillsides and loading machinery erected in the narrow ravines that become transport lanes for the coal truck convoys. Besides, they noted, the shafts entered the ground far below the terraced fields where people worked and the mountaintop brick and concrete homes where they lived.

For a while, the farmers and the miners coexisted happily. But in late 2003, the cracks started to appear.

One by one, they left lizard tracks across the walls. Tiles tipped up on the floors. Vaulted ceilings rained bricks on the grain stored inside. Rooftops gaped open. At one home, an entire room fell in on itself. Farmers used tree trunks to prop up doorways and prevent them from collapsing.

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