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China admits corruption is behind spate of deadly mine accidents

BEIJING—Fatalities have dropped significantly in China's accident-plagued coal mines, authorities said Thursday. But they blamed corrupt local officials who collude with owners of illegal mines—or who own the mines themselves—for thwarting efforts to improve worker safety.

In a frank admission of widespread graft and influence peddling, authorities said mine owners buy off safety inspection teams and that local officials sometimes hold stakes in outlaw mines, shunning safety equipment in order to make greater profit.

Township and county officials often "act as the protective umbrella of illegal activities" at coal mines, said Li Yizhong, minister of the State Administration of Work Safety.

China has among the most dangerous coal mines in the world. Last year, an estimated 6,000 miners perished, a safety record that's more than 150 times worse than the toll in U.S. coal mines.

Li and other safety officials offered an analysis of 11 major industrial accidents in recent years, including coal mine disasters, chemical spills, gas plant explosions and an airline crash.

Even as Li pledged that China's central government would strive to reduce work-place fatalities, he said that rapid industrialization inevitably leaves a trail of death.

"If one looks at the experience of different countries, and the accident-prone period they endured, the United Kingdom used 70 years, the United States used 60 years, and Japan used 26 years," Li said. "China's target is to use 10 to 15 years to go through such a period ... to stabilize safety conditions."

China relies on coal to generate about two-thirds of its electricity.

An official in charge of national mine safety, Zhou Tiechui, said authorities shut down 5,931 illegal small mines in 2005 and will close 2,652 mines this year. Zhou didn't give an overall number for fatalities to date this year, but noted that the year-on-year rate had dropped 21 percent.

China has many model national workplace safety laws that are ignored by lower-level authorities, who keep mines open around the clock to provide fuel for local industries.

"There is corruption behind these accidents. Some local governments develop countermeasures against the policy of the governments of higher levels," Li said.

In two mine disasters—one in November 2005 in Heilongjiang province that left 171 people dead and a second last June in Liaoning province that killed 27 miners—officials "were inappropriately obsessive about economic efficiency by producing beyond their capacities," said Huang Shuxian, a vice minister of workplace safety.

As a result of the industrial accidents, Huang said 117 people were charged with crimes and 144 company managers or government officials faced Communist Party disciplinary measures.

Earlier this year, a Communist Party commission reported that more than 4,800 government officials acknowledged that they owned shares in coal mines worth $91 million, despite regulations against such ownership.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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