At least 152 trapped in flooded China coal mine

BEIJING: At least 152 workers were trapped when a vast coal mine being built in northern China flooded on Sunday, in the latest accident to hit the country's notoriously dangerous mining industry.

A total of 261 people were working in the Wangjialing mine in Shanxi province when underground water gushed in, and just over 100 managed to escape, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

China's coal mines are among the most dangerous in the world, with safety standards often ignored in the quest for profits and the drive to meet surging demand for coal -- the source of about 70 percent of China's energy.

An official at the coal mine safety administration in Linfen city, where the mine is located, confirmed the accident and that men were trapped but declined to provide any further details.

The Wangjialing mine belongs to the state-owned Huajin Coking Coal company, and covers an area of 180 square kilometres (70 square miles), the Xinhua report said.

It said the mine sits on more than 2.3 billion tonnes of coal reserves, including over one billion tonnes of proven reserves, describing it as key project approved by the provincial government.

The mine is currently undergoing infrastructure construction and is expected to produce six million tonnes of coal each year once put into operation, Xinhua said.

In one of the worst accidents in recent years, 108 miners were killed last November when an explosion ripped through a coal mine in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

And this month, 25 people died in a coal mine fire in central China's Henan province.

According to official statistics, a total of 2,631 miners -- about seven a day -- were killed last year, down by 584 from 2008 in a decline officials attributed to improved safety measures.

But Zhao Tiechui, head of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, said in February that China would still need at least 10 years to "fundamentally improve" safety in its coal mines.

"Awareness of safety and rule of law is still low in some coal-rich areas and some coal enterprises," he was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

Total coal production in China, the world's third largest economy which is powering ahead with growth of eight percent forecast this year, rose from just over one billion tonnes in 1999 to 2.95 billion tonnes last year, Zhao said.

As part of its campaign to increase safety standards, the government has levied heavy fines and implemented region-wide mining shutdowns following serious accidents.

But the action has resulted in the under-reporting of accidents as mine bosses seek to limit their economic losses, labour rights groups maintain.

Other safety measures include modernising ventilation and gas detection systems and improving evacuation procedures.

Authorities have also beefed up safety inspection requirements and imposed stricter standards for mine closures.

Fatalities at China's coal mines peaked in 2002 when 6,995 deaths were recorded.