Recent coalmine disasters in China are underscoring the difficulty the Chinese government faces in raising safety standards in thousands of mines.  According to official Chinese statistics, more than 4,000 Chinese coal miners were killed in fires, explosions, floods or other disasters in the first nine months of this year.  Experts say insufficient safety equipment and poor management are partly to blame.  

At a recent hearing before the congressionally-mandated Congressional Executive Commission on China, British coal industry consultant Dave Feickert put forth a sobering statistic.

"China produces about one-third of the world's coal," he said. "And yet, it has over 80 percent of the fatal accidents, of the world's coal mining industry.  And that is a statistic that came from the Chinese [Work] Safety Administration."

China has been plagued in recent months by several fatal coal mine disasters, including explosions that killed 166 people last month at a state-owned mine in Shaanxi Province.

Joseph Main is the health and safety administrator for the workers' union, the United Mine Workers of America.  He visited China in June, and says Chinese state-owned mines, on average, are larger and have better safety standards than the many smaller, local mines, which are not as well regulated.

"The mines that are controlled by the state, so to speak, the government, through the national government structure - those mines are more capitalized, having better equipment, better conditions, than many of the township mines, private small mines.  And, many of those - they number in the thousands, given the information I've got coming out of China - they [smaller mines] lack the basic protections that are needed for mining, to make sure that miners are not killed," said Mr. Main.

Mr. Main says mining coal releases highly explosive methane gas, which makes the work especially dangerous.

"Generally, any time you get even a spark in an area where you have methane - and it is explosive at 5-15 percent in volume of air - you get enough methane, one little spark, whether it is an open fire, or just a piece of metal striking something to create a frictional heat spark, just enough to set it off, can cause an explosion," he added.

British consultant Dave Feickert compares China's coal-mine safety situation to that of Britain in the 18th century.  But he says Beijing has access to, and has even acquired, some of the best technology currently available in the global coal industry. 

Therefore, he says, he believes the problem is not necessarily a shortage of modern equipment, but a lack of organization and coordination of adequate safety standards for all Chinese mines.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) passed a convention on mine safety and health in 1995.  Only 20 countries have ratified it.  The United States has signed on.  China has not.

The United Mine Workers of America's Joe Main says he thinks countries may not want to ratify it, because it would open them to international scrutiny.

"Countries that may not want to let the world know what they are doing and how well they are complying, may not want to do it for that purpose," he noted.

British consultant Feickert says the ILO convention represents the "distilled experience of the international mining community," and sets minimum standards that he calls "sensible."

Mr. Feickert notes that coal is a key source of fuel for China, which is struggling to keep up with rapidly growing energy demands.

"The speed of growth of the Chinese economy is so fast, and the demand for energy is so great, that China will be producing much more than its current 1.7 billion tons of coal a year.  It is increasing at a rate of about 15 percent a year.  And nobody quite knows where it is going to end, because coal is their main energy source," he explained.

If the Chinese do not mine coal, Mr. Feickert says, they will supplement their energy needs with oil and gas purchased on the international market.  That, he says, would cause world prices to rise correspondingly.