Coal mining towns sinking in China

Abandoned houses on sinking land near a coal mine in Datong, Shanxi province, where the authorities plan to relocate 655,000 residents by the end of next year, at an estimated cost of $3.2 billion.
Abandoned houses on sinking land near a coal mine in Datong, Shanxi province, where the authorities plan to relocate 655,000 residents by the end of next year, at an estimated cost of $3.2 billion.PHOTO: REUTERS

HELIN (China) • Deep in the coal heartlands of China's northern Shanxi province, people in Helin village are fighting a losing battle as the ground beneath them crumbles: patching up cracks, rebuilding walls and filling in sinkholes caused by decades of coal mining.

Around 100 pits in Helin - buried in the hilly rural outskirts of the city of Xiaoyi - have been exhausted, and cluttered hamlets totter precariously on the brittle slopes of mines.

But while the local authorities have begun evacuating hundreds of thousands of residents most at risk elsewhere in Shanxi province, Helin's situation - though serious - is not yet considered a priority.

"We haven't been told to leave yet, but when the government gives us the order, we'll be happy to go," said Mr Wang Junqi, who lives in a one- room flat with his family. "It isn't safe here and the people who have a bit of money have already gone. It's scary, but what can we do?"

Mines that burrowed under villages and towns during China's three- decade coal boom have left hundreds of communities in danger of sinking, and the authorities now face the need to evacuate them.

Shanxi province alone plans to move 655,000 residents away from old and unsafe mining regions by the end of next year, with the cost of relocation estimated at 15.8 billion yuan (S$3.2 billion). The Shanxi government estimates that coal mining has cost the province 77 billion yuan in "environmental economic losses".

China's Land Ministry said last month that it would spend 75 billion yuan over the next five years to restore mined land and treat mining waste nationwide.

The growing environmental bill comes at a time when the country's stricken coal sector faces mounting debts, falling demand and a long-term decline in prices after the boom turned into a bust.

The coal sector, as with other basic industries in China such as steel, is now saddled with overcapacity, estimated at around two billion tonnes a year, as demand growth slows and the country promotes cleaner forms of energy. China planned to close around 1,000 collieries this year alone, many of them in residential areas like Helin, as it cuts coal's share of total energy consumption to 62 per cent by 2020.

During the boom years, as prices and profits soared, miners were encouraged to dig farther and deeper, encroaching upon residential areas and farmland.

While large state-run firms would often relocate entire villages, smaller private miners, chasing quick profits, simply dug under and around communities. With mining tax revenues surging, local governments were reluctant to impose stricter controls on the industry.

Ms Jiang Jian, a legislator from Shandong province, said Beijing needed to draw up detailed measures to determine how much mining firms should pay.

Many of the worst-hit sites have been long abandoned, making it harder to decide who is responsible, she noted, so Beijing also needed to set up dedicated funds to help pay remediation costs, including treatment and disposal of mine waste.

To help with the clean-up, China is encouraging developers to turn abandoned mining sites into wind and solar power projects. Solar accounted for just 0.6 per cent of China's overall electricity generation from January to June, and wind was a mere 3.6 per cent.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'Coal mining towns sinking in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe