Chinese coal mine blast toll hits 87, 21 still missing

The death toll from a massive methane gas explosion at a north China coal mine rose Friday to 87 with 21 workers still missing, the government said, while state media slammed the industry for not doing more to stop such preventable accidents. The official Xinhua News Agency said rescuers confirmed that 87 workers were killed by the blast at the Liuguantun Colliery and the search continued for 21 others.

The new figures indicated there were two more miners dead or missing than previously thought, but did not explain the discrepancy. A disparity in numbers often occurs in such accidents and highlights the industry's chronic mismanagement and inattention to safety protocols.

A mixture of airborne coal dust and colorless, methane-laden gas known as fire damp ignited to cause the blast on Wednesday, an initial investigation showed. The colliery is located in Tangshan, a city in Hebei province about 150 kilometers (95 miles) from Beijing. "It's hard to say how I feel now that so many people suddenly disappeared," Xinhua quoted 38-year-old injured miner Song Chunyu as saying. "We were on the same bus to work that morning and had lunch together."

The China Daily newspaper on Friday published an editorial critical of the country's mining industry for not installing equipment to clear deadly methane gas.

"Coal companies in developed countries long ago introduced technology to draw out methane before letting miners get down to work in shafts," the newspaper said. "We should not sit idle. ... Some accidents involving this gas could be avoided."

The editorial said it was not uncommon in Chinese mines for managers to ignore the presence of methane gas or "even to cover sensors that are designed to detect it." It said stricter regulations and supervision was needed.

Rescue efforts on Thursday ground almost to a halt when carbon monoxide levels nearly 100 times the acceptable standard were found, posing the threat of another explosion or poisoning, Xinhua said. The mine's owners promised to compensate each of the victims' families with at least 200,000 yuan (US$25,000; Ђ21,000), although the mine's owners and managers were in police custody and their bank accounts had been frozen, Xinhua said, without giving more details. China's mines are by far the world's deadliest with more than 6,000 killed in floods, fires, explosions and other accidents last year. Corruption, lax safety rules and poor equipment are among the causes of the accidents.

The government has shut down thousands of unsafe mines and punished mine owners. But China's immense need for energy, stemming from breakneck development, has complicated the issue.

"The pit may be full of danger, but it promises a stable income," Xinhua quoted Song, the miner, as saying. It said he was the wage earner for two children, his own parents and his parents in law. Elsewhere, rescuers at the Sigou mine in central Henan province were trying to save 42 miners trapped underground after the shaft flooded last Friday, Xinhua said late Thursday.

At another flooded mine in Changchun, the capital of the northeastern province of Jilin, the search continued for six miners trapped on Thursday, reports the AP. I.L.

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