Top ten countries for coal production, 2013 (megatonnes). Graphic: The Guardian / World Coal Association

By Emma Graham-Harrison
5 June 2015

(The Guardian) – The country is grappling with the direct costs of that coal, in miners' lives, crippling air pollution, expanding deserts and “environmental refugees”.

Desire for change contends with fears that cutting back on familiar technology could dent employment or slow growth, and efforts to cut consumption do not always mean a clampdown on mining.

Black lung’s long shadow

Most of the mines burrowed into the parched hillsides of Wang Family Mountain have been closed for several years, but their shadow lingers in the blackened, failing lungs of the He family.

The mining carried He Jinbao off first, then two of his seven sons. Now two more He brothers are waiting to die, condemned by dust inhaled long ago on underground shifts.

The tiny airborne specks pose a risk few miners understand as they head down into the country's pits, haunted by the more immediate fear of the explosions and collapses which claim hundreds of lives each year.

“I never heard anyone mention black lung disease,” said He Quanfa, one of the two doomed brothers – there is no cure for the illness which slowly hardens the lungs as they try to expel trapped coal dust. “If I had, I might have worn a mask.”

They all hung up their hard hats years before their diagnoses, and thought they had escaped the mines with not just their lives but also a tiny slice of the country's new-found prosperity. “Until 15 years ago, we lived in a cave,” says He, now 50. [...]

The private mine where he worked without contracts, insurance or protection shut around two years ago and the owner vanished soon after.

The mine was probably a target of belated government efforts to halt the accidents that kill hundreds of men a year, and professionalise a critical sector, by closing down the small independent pits whose business model is usually based on bribing their way out of regulations.

Peak Coal and politics

Gathering worries about climate change and pollution have also have played a role in the shutdown though, pushing China to begin the enormous task of weaning itself off the dirty fuel that powered its boom years and still provides two-thirds of the country's energy.

Chinese miners last year dug up 3.87bn tonnes of coal, more than enough to keep all four of the next largest users – the United States, India, the European Union, and Russia – supplied for a year. [more]

The coal boom choking China

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