In October, an explosion killed 147 miners; in November, another mine exploded, again from gas build-up, killing 33.
China produced 35% of the world's coal last year, and 80% of total coal mining deaths worldwide. That information comes not from some touchy-feely China-monitoring group, but from China's State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS).
SAWS released another figure, easily as depressing as the first: In 2003, the average coal miner in China produced 321 tons of coal over the course of the year – only 2.2% what his US counterpart did. The death toll per 100 tons of coal produced is 100 times the US death rate. "This means that coal mining has become the most deadly job in China," the China Daily observed.
Indeed, testing defective bungee cords would be a safer job than coal mining, an activity that is often conducted illegally in mines long designated unsafe. They continue to operate, and they continue to attract miners because whole impoverished communities in Henan and other coal-producing provinces have no other jobs on offer.
The energy crunch has hardly helped, encouraging local officials to turn a blind eye as mines push out more coal to feed China's ever-hungry power generators and vast numbers of steel-making plants.
October brought over 200 mining deaths across the country, according to official data, which is to say there were many more – because deaths at illegal sites often go unreported.
An opportunity to do something may soon be at hand. If predictions are right, China could be edging into an energy glut next year. What better time than now to make a New Year's resolution: To fill all unsafe mines with cement and put miners affected by the closures to work planting trees. The bill can be more than covered by dipping into China's US$515bn reserve – which has been suffering from a build-up problem of its own, jumping 27% in just one year.