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Miracle reconsidered

By Dong Jidong (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2010-04-12 23:00
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The latest news from Wangjialing Coal Mine in Shanxi province confirms the deaths of 35 miners trapped in the flooded mine. One week after the rescue of 115 miners, which has been lauded as "a miracle in China's mining rescue history," people are beginning to face the grim reality behind the miracle.

To be honest, I was pessimistic about the fate of the trapped miners from the start. For years, numerous coal mining accidents in China have reminded us only of the stark death figures, grieving relatives, panicked local officials, mine owners who fled after the accident, and failed rescue efforts.

The rescue of 115 miners this time was indeed a miracle. Those rescue workers, who worked day and night, deserve our highest respect. However, we have no time for complacency. The latest string of accidents point to the urgency of ensuring safety in China's coal mining industry.

As the largest coal producer with an output accounting for 37 percent of the world's total, China reports 70 percent of the total number of deaths in coalmines worldwide. Although the central government has reiterated its commitment to shut down thousands of small coal mines, the recent accidents in Wangjialing and Yichuan in Henan show that we still have to learn "the lessons drawn in blood."

In the Wangjialing rescue headquarters office, what grabs the media's attention is a slogan to "strive to be Number 1", which prioritizes production over safety. Three days before the collier flood occurred, water leakage was detected. However, the managers ignored the warnings, for which miners paid the price with their lives.

Coal mining remains one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. But miners in the US feel more secure than their Chinese counterparts. Few people in China know that the US coal mining industry was once a similar mess half a century ago. Among the measures the US government adopted to curb the mining accidents, work safety legislation has proved the most effective. For example, it is quite enlightening to read the following sentence: "The first priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industries must be the health and safety of its most precious resource -- the miner," as stipulated in the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

As a matter of fact, the focus on the health and safety of miners in the Act coincides with the principle of "putting people first" advocated by the Chinese government. While rescue work is going on for the three still missing, what has struck me most is the words of a hospitalized survivor. "I have never been treated this well", he said, after being offered the best medical treatment available.

If government officials treat the miners as the most precious resource of the industry, and take concrete measures to protect them, there will definitely be fewer fatal coal mine accidents and fewer miracles for us to laud.