Scores killed, trapped in Chinese mine explosion

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 21, 2009; 6:53 AM

BEIJING-- A powerful gas explosion at a coal mine in northeastern China has killed at least 42 miners, with 66 more trapped about a third of a mile underground, according to state news media. The accident again highlighted China's notoriously bad record on coal mine accidents, which kill thousands of miners each year.

The explosion occurred in the early morning hours when 528 miners were working underground in a state-owned Xinxing mine in the city of Hegang, in northeastern Heilongjiang province. The blast shattered glass windows in nearby buildings, and residents said they felt the shock from the explosion as far as six miles away.

The explosion completely destroyed the mine's ventilation and communications systems, hampering the efforts of rescue workers, according to China Central Television.

About 400 miners managed to escape the mine immediately after the blast, but about 47 were injured, some with burns, others suffering from broken bones and carbon monoxide poisoning, according to official media reports.

China has the world's worst record on coal mine safety, mainly because of the huge number of illegal mines helping to fuel the country's economic boom. Coal accounts for about 80 percent of China's electricity needs.

Official government figures say about 80 percent of the country's 16,000 coal mines are illegal and largely ignore safety regulations. The illegal mines supply about a third of the country's coal, but also three-quarters of the mine-related deaths.

Last year, the government's State Administration of Work Safety reported 3,215 deaths in coal mining accidents. That figure was down from 3,786 mining deaths reported in 2007 -- a 15 percent drop that the government attributed to efforts to shutter the illegal mines and bring others into compliance with safety rules. More than 1,000 illegal mines were shut in 2008, according to official statistics.

For the first seven months of this year, mining deaths were about 12 percent lower than the same period last year because of the stepped-up government enforcement efforts, according to Luo Lin, who heads the State Administration of Work Safety.

One mining disaster in February killed 74 miners in Shanxi province. An explosion in May in Chongqing city killed 30 miners.

Images broadcast tonight on state television showed Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang visiting some of the injured miners in the hospital in Hegang. Chinese news agency Web sites posted constant updates on the death toll and the rescue efforts.

China's media have recently provided regular coverage of the country's mining accidents and the problem of illegal mines, and government officials have promised to try to bring the problem under control.

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