November 28, 2005

China coal mine blast kills 68

By Benjamin Kang Lim and Judy Hua

BEIJING (Reuters) - An explosion ripped through a
state-owned colliery in northeast China, killing 68 miners and
trapping 79 underground, just days after Chinese leaders called
for vigilance to prevent major accidents.

The blast late on Sunday was the latest disaster to strike
Heilongjiang, whose capital city, Harbin, was held hostage for
five days by a toxic spill coursing through the Songhua river
that provides its water supply, forcing a shut-down of tap

Li Yizhong, head of the country's top work safety watchdog,
urged about 270 rescue workers to spare no effort to save 79
miners trapped at Dongfeng coal mine.

Sixty-eight of 221 miners working underground at the time
have been killed, while 74 have been rescued, the official
Xinhua news agency said.

Investigators blamed the blast on coal-dust explosion,
which knocked out all ventilation systems in the pit. The main
system resumed operation on Monday.

The accident came about two weeks after an explosion at a
chemical plant in nearby Jilin province poured 100 tonnes of
cancer-causing benzene compounds into the Songhua river.

An 80-km (50-mile) slick passed through the Songhua River
and out of Harbin at the weekend.

Making no mention of the toxic spill, President Hu Jintao
and Premier Wen Jiabao called last week for vigilance to
prevent major accidents which cause huge casualties and
property losses.

Hu and Wen urged law enforcement agencies to implement
stricter inspection measures and punish those responsible in
accordance with the law, state media said without elaborating.

Taps were turned back on in Harbin, home to nine million
people, on Sunday and Heilongjiang provincial Governor Zhang
Zuoji drank tap water to prove it was safe.

Officials have warned residents to be on the lookout for
symptoms of benzene poisoning, which can cause anemia, other
blood disorders and kidney and liver damage.


Governor Zhang defended a government decision to delay
announcement of the toxic spill by 10 hours, saying it was a
"white lie," the Legal Evening News reported.

"We rectified this 'white lie' protect the right of
the people to know," he was quoted as saying.

The Harbin crisis has raised wider questions about the
costs of China's breakneck economic boom. Around 70 percent of
its rivers are contaminated and the cabinet recently described
the country's environmental situation as grim.

Water was discharged from nearby reservoirs to dilute the
toxic spill and 1,000 soldiers installed charcoal filters at
water plants to ensure water would be drinkable.

Environmentalists have complained that China is not sharing
enough information about the spill to protect Russia's
residents and rivers downstream from the Songhua.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing has expressed regret
to Russia's ambassador over the incident.


China's mining industry is the biggest and the deadliest in
the world. Accidents killed more than 2,700 miners in the first
half of this year alone.

The country has launched safety campaigns to clean up and
shut down illegal mines in the hope that consolidating China's
thousands of tiny and primitive operations will improve safety.

But booming energy demand and high coal prices has driven
some mine owners to ignore regulations and Sunday's blast, at a
state-owned mine, shows that larger players are not immune from

Dongfeng coal mine is run by a branch of the Heilongjiang
Longmei Mining (Group) Co. Ltd. -- a conglomerate of four
state-owned major coal businesses in the province, with a
registered capital of 13 billion yuan.

China's worst coal mine accident this year killed 214
people at a state-run mine in the northeastern province of

Accidents and disasters cause more than 1 million
casualties annually in China. They also bring economic losses
of 650 billion yuan each year, equivalent to 6 percent of gross
domestic product, according to Wang Jikun, a senior official
with the Ministry of Public Security.

(Additional reporting by Brian Rhoads and Lindsay Beck)