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After toxic spill, China mine explodes

Beijing, Nov. 28 (Reuters): An explosion ripped through a state-owned colliery in northeast China, killing 134 miners and trapping 15 underground, just days after Chinese leaders called for vigilance to prevent major accidents.

The blast late yesterday 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 water.

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

Late today, the official Xinhua news agency said 134 of the 221 men working underground at the time of the blast had now been confirmed killed and 15 were still missing.

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

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 slick passed down 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.

They 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 9 million people, yesterday and Heilongjiang provincial governor Zhang Zuoji drank tap water to prove it was safe.

But officials have warned residents to be on the lookout for symptoms of benzene poisoning, which can cause anaemia, 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’...to 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 per cent 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 river.

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.

Today, all 18 miners trapped by flooding at a separate accident at the Gaocun mine in the northern province of Hebei were confirmed dead, Xinhua news agency reported. Three mine managers disappeared soon after the flood, leaving rescue teams without a guide to search the underground warren.

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. Heilongjiang province said today it would complete its consolidation by the new year.

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