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Hopes dim for Chinese miners

More than 180 are trapped in a flooded work site in the east, where rain hampers the rescue efforts.

August 19, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Rescue teams that included about 2,000 soldiers rushed Saturday to a flooded coal mine in eastern China, where 181 miners were trapped and feared dead after heavy rains breached a levee and inundated the site.

State-run media, quoting executives of Huayuan Mining Co., reported that 756 miners were working in the main part of the facility when flooding started Friday afternoon but that 584 were able to escape. In another flooded shaft nearby, an additional nine miners were trapped by the water.

The official New China News Agency quoted the provincial mine administrator as saying the chances of finding any survivors were slim.

Mining accidents are common in China, where the burgeoning economy has produced a near-insatiable demand for coal.

The death toll in Xintai in Shangdong province in the east could be the highest from any mine accident in more than two years.

In February 2005, 214 miners died in an explosion in a coal mine in the northeastern city of Fuxin; that accident was China's deadliest in decades.

Although local authorities were sounding pessimistic Saturday night, just two weeks ago 69 coal miners were rescued from a flooded shaft in neighboring Henan province three days after a similar flash flood.

According to government figures, 4,746 people were killed in 2,845 mining accidents in 2006, an average of nearly eight incidents a day.

Most deaths occur at illegal digs, and the number of accidents is believed to be higher than reported in government statistics. The Xintai mine operates legally. Officials said it was opened in 1957 and had a production capacity of 750,000 tons of coal annually.

Government officials have accused mine owners and managers of covering up accidents and have vowed to improve mine safety. The government has ordered the closing of 10,000 small mines this year; such small operations are more prone to accidents.

State-run media said the flooding in Xintai occurred after torrential rains Friday caused the swelling Wen River to breach a levee near the mine, sending water down the shafts. Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army were sent to shore up the levee, which authorities said still had not been fully rebuilt by late Saturday night. Continuing rain also hampered rescue efforts.

Pumps were being sent to the mine from nearby provinces. Villagers near the mine were evacuated, and other mines in the area were ordered to halt production.

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