BEIJING, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The number of people who died in China’s notoriously dangerous coal mines in 2009 dropped to an average of seven per day, following years of efforts to improve safety and accountability in the industry.
Cave-ins, flooding and explosions claimed 2,631 lives in 2009, the Xinhua news agency said on Sunday, down from 3,215 in 2008.
A number of highly publicised coal accidents as miners raced to meet the nation’s demand for energy had pushed deaths to a peak of nearly 7,000 in 2002.
The country needs another decade to fundamentally improve the safety record, Xinhua said, citing Zhao Tiechui, head of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety.
“Coal mine safety is still a big problem,” Zhao said. “Awareness of safety and rule of law is still low in some coal-rich areas and some coal enterprises.”
Coal production from China is estimated to rise to 3.1 billion tonnes in 2010, up from 2.96 billion in 2009.
Chinese regulators have tried to improve coal safety by installing safety systems including lights, sensors and emergency notification protocols at the nation’s biggest mines.
They also tried to force smaller, more dangerous mines to close, although that effort was stymied by coal shortages as the nation relies increasingly on private mines to meet demand.
Coal produced by small mines accounted for 35 percent of the national total in 2009, but 70 percent of the accidents and fatalities, Zhao said.
A newer effort to force mines to consolidate aims at creating mining firms that have the working capital to install safety equipment, as well as reducing accidents caused by different companies operating too close to each other and weakening walls.
Recent investigations have revealed mine owners who have tried to cover up accidents or pay off families of miners who died to avoid punishment and the closing or seizure of their mines.
It is unknown how many deaths are not captured by the official data.
Reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Sugita Katyal