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China Hit By New Mine Disaster, More Fallout from Chemical Spill

China on Saturday experienced another major mine disaster, while it continued to deal with the effects of a massive toxic chemical spill in its Northeast. The death toll from a coal mine explosion a week ago in Heilongjiang province rose to 169 and officials had new problems on their hands.

The flooding of a mineshaft in central China's Henan province Friday was the latest in a string of environmental and industrial disasters that have highlighted the country's infrastructure problems.

Rescuers worked Saturday to reach at least 42 miners who were trapped when the privately-owned and unlicensed Sigou coal mine flooded in Xinan county.

Crews in northeastern China's Heilongjiang province meanwhile wound down their search for bodies Saturday following a November 27 explosion - the most deadly in recent months in a nation that reports fatal mine accidents almost every month.

Chinese official figures put the number of mine deaths for 2004 at more than 6,000, a figure analysts blame on factors including corruption, and pressure to fill growing energy needs at a time of rapid economic expansion.

As their colleagues dealt with the mine disasters, officials in the Northeast continued to work to contain the damage from a November 13 benzene spill that poisoned an 80-kilometer-long stretch of the Songhua River.

Authorities on Friday shut off water to Jiamusi, a city of nearly half a million people, as the contaminated slick went past. After Harbin, with its nearly four million people, Jiamusi is the second major city along the river to have its water supplies interrupted since the spill occurred.

Along with considerable environmental damage, the disaster has had political consequences. On Friday, the head of China's environmental protection agency resigned following questions of why it took officials more than a week to inform residents of the spill.

Politics professor Wenran Jiang at the University of Alberta in Canada has been following the disaster. He says the central government is having to take responsibility for problems that were initially blamed on local authorities.

"They dare not and they have no right to announce anything until the chain reports to the central government and wait for what to do," said Wenran Jiang. "So in this recent Songhua River pollution case, we can see that the local government reported right away to the central government. But they were told not to tell ordinary people or announce it because of considerations of social unrest panic, or even especially the Russian reaction once they know that the chemicals would flow into Russia."

China has offered to assist Russia in dealing with the spill when it reaches the Russian border in the next few days. Chinese officials on Saturday said they had delivered a railroad car full of activated charcoal to the Russian border city of Khabarovsk, to help filter the poisoned river water.