Up to 54 people are feared dead after an explosion ripped through a mine in northeastern China in the latest disaster to hit the ailing mining industry, official media reported Wednesday.
State television said the blast at the Number One Mine of the Lanshan Coal Company in Hegang, a town in Heilongjiang province, happened in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
It said nine people had been confirmed dead and the 45 others who were underground at the time of the blast were still missing more than 36 hours later.
Officials at the mine declined all comment on the explosion and refused to say how many people had been killed.
They said mine bosses were at the scene coordinating a rescue operation, although there are rarely survivors from the frequent underground explosions at mainland China’s poorly managed and often-dangerous coal mines.
Mainland China is the biggest producer and consumer of coal in the world, and it has an appalling safety record.
The official death toll from mine accidents last year was more than 5,300 although independent analysts estimate 10,000 Chinese miners die each year.
While the Lanshan Coal Company is owned by the local authorities, the number one mine was contracted out to a private operator, according to the Hong Kong based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
Private operators are often able, through bribes or negligence, to escape government supervision and tend to pay even less attention to safety, said the center.
The government has launched a campaign to shut thousands of coal mines, especially small and dangerous ones, to avoid overproduction, falling prices and to improve the industry’s safety record.
But many of the mines simply reopen after brief closures as the owners are loath to give up a source of income and the lack of monitoring means the mines often operate illegally.
Frequently after accidents owners of small, and sometimes illegal, mines have been more interested in covering up the disaster than in helping survivors.
After a blast at a coal mine in Henan province last year, the owner paid workers to beat up journalists and miners in an attempt to cover up the explosion.
There have been several major mining accidents reported in the state media in recent months.
At least 47 miners were killed in an explosion at a coal mine in northwest Shaanxi province on April 6, while 37 miners were killed in a gas blast at a mine employing prison labor in Heilongjiang in February.
After the April blast in Shaanxi province, the government again promised to step up mine safety and hold local officials responsible for major accidents in their areas.