In China, losing ground to coal

In China, losing ground to coal

When Wei Yong returned to his ancestral village last year to visit his 77-year-old mother, he heard about the tremors. Late one night, the residents told him, the village was rocked by what everyone thought was an earthquake. The ground shook. The houses trembled. And the earth cracked open.

“Liu Run told me her walls were about to cave in,” Wei said. “My sister says everywhere is sinking. She won’t even let the dog roam free at night.”

There was no earthquake, however. Instead, three large coal mining operations had been burrowing underground for coal here in this village in the central province of Shanxi – day and night, sometimes with dynamite. And from far below, they had cracked the earth.

The village of Shangma Huangtou is just the latest victim of a mining boom that is ruining huge swaths of north China, where some of the country’s richest coal deposits lie. China is the largest producer of coal, and much of it is mined here.

While Shanxi provides the fuel that powers China’s economy, thousands of hectares of land are sinking because of the ravages of coal mining. Moreover, coal fires are burning uncontrollably below ground here and through much of northern China, adding to global warming by releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Each year, scientists say, about 200 million tons of coal – more than was burned in all of Japan last year – is consumed by raging underground fires that are sometimes started by lightning and sometimes ignited by mining accidents.

Environmental experts call Shanxi a wasteland. The people of Shangma Huangtou call it a home they no longer cherish.

The tremors have not stopped, residents say. So after years of suffering from increasingly foul air and sandstorms fed by a growing mountain of coal waste, now 50 stories high, created from an open pit mine, the residents say they have had enough. They have petitioned to leave this village.

“People at my age don’t like to move to a new place,” said Wei Yangxian, 71, as he stood by the village road. “But we have no choice. We have no water. The earth is sinking. The air is poisoned. And there’s that big man-made mountain.”

The problem is that the village is surrounded. Coal mines on the north and south side have already tunneled under the village; a huge chemical factory, about 600 meters, or 2,000 feet, west of the village, has fouled the air; and the man-made mountain is on the east side.

“When I cook,” said Liu Runhua, 54, “I even get sand in the food.”

All night long, residents here say, trucks carrying coal waste dump it off the side of the mountain. All day long, trucks overloaded with coal rumble past the village, cracking the roads and spraying coal waste on roadside homes.

Not long ago, residents here grew so angry that they blocked the road passing through town by forming huge dirt mounds as a makeshift barricade against coal-bearing trucks.

The government has done little. Xu Gang, a government spokesman, said that moving the village people would be “impossible” and added that the complaints seemed motivated mostly by an effort to seek compensation.

“I think they only do this for money,” he said.

But one of the men fighting to save the village is Wei Yong, 47, a former government official and the village’s favorite son, the first to leave for college in the 1970s. Wei knows something about the environmental destruction that coal mining can inflict on the land. He himself is in the coal-mining business in northern China.

“My biggest coal mine is in Inner Mongolia,” he said. “But there are very few people in Inner Mongolia. Shanxi Province has people everywhere. The coal mining goes on right in the middle of a huge population. And nobody cares about the environment.”

When he was a boy growing up here in the 1960s, Wei said, Shangma Huangtou was a village of about 500 people set up against the hills, with corn and soybean farms and a stream running through the middle of the village.

“I remember you could drink from that stream,” Wei said.

Everyone here talks about the stream.

“When I was young this stream was very clear,” according to Lin Youmao, the village’s elected chief. “We could find fish and shrimp in this little river. And we could swim in it.”

In the early 1980s, however, when China was just waking from its long economic slumber, the village turned into a coal mining town after rich deposits were found in the area.

Armand Hammer, the American industrialist and the founder of Occidental Petroleum, formed one of China’s first joint ventures. In 1982, his company signed an agreement to create a huge open-pit coal mine in Shanxi Province, which had just been designated as the country’s new energy base.

The mine was created just east of the village. And when the new project broke ground, residents recall, Hammer flew in by private jet and Prime Minister Li Peng came for the ceremony. Years later, Hammer pulled out of the project, unhappy with its progress. But the An Tai Bao open-pit coal mine continued to grow, scooping up millions of tons of coal and piling mountains of coal waste next to the village.

Every year, residents say, the mountain grew taller. And every year it crept closer to the village. By the 1990s, the mine was operating around the clock. Today, the mountain covers about 80 square kilometers, or more than 30 square miles, of land.

At the An Tai Bao Mine, hundreds of Caterpillar trucks, many of them larger than a house, line up every day to carry earth and coal waste up a winding path to the top of the mountain, where it is dumped onto the pile.

Complaints flow easily. Liu Runhua took a visitor to her new house and pointed at the cracks.

Wei Yangxian said, “If you had come five days earlier, you would have seen a sandstorm blanketing our village.”

Wei Futang, 63, a former coal miner, spoke up: “Beautiful land should have two things – water and mountains. Without water a beautiful village can turn ugly very fast.”

Today, Shangma Huangtou has no water. Villagers say the stream running through it dried up 10 years ago. Now, the wells have run dry, too. It used to be that every household had a well; now the village hires a truck to fetch water.

“The earth is like the human body,” Lin, the village chief, said. “And the water is like the blood in your veins. But now there’s no water, no blood.”

But people here mostly talk about the possibility that the huge slag heap of a mountain will come crashing down and simply bury the village.

That is what happened in Wales in 1966, when a huge pile of coal waste tumbled down on the village of Aberfan, crashing into an elementary school and killing 116 schoolchildren.

“There are three coal mines surrounding the village and only one road out,” said Wei Yong, who has pleaded with his mother to leave the village.

Lin, the village chief, likes to wander the farmlands to measure the huge fissures in the earth. He says a body was buried here a few years ago, but after the ground shifted, relatives came to recover the body and move it to more stable land. They never found it.

“Look at this sinking,” Lin said, surveying the sloping, tilted farmland. “Two years ago this land was flat. Now look at it.”

At a town meeting a year ago, the villagers gathered and decided they had to move before the village was sucked under. Even without that threat, though, the environmental degradation that surrounds Shangma Huangtou gives them little reason to stay.


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