China is failing in its efforts to shut down thousands of death-trap coal mines, the nation's top work safety official said in remarks published on Thursday.
Small mines are still being set up at a rapid pace despite an explicit ban, adding to the existing 24,000 pits in that category, Li Yizhong, who heads the State Administration of Work Safety, told a national conference.
"On the one hand, old small mines are being closed down, and on the other new ones are being opened up," he said, according to the text of his remarks posted on the administration's website.
"So the abnormally high number is not coming down."
Small mines, defined as those with annual production below 300,000 tonnes, account for a minority of output but a majority of fatalities in the nation's most lethal industry.
China had set itself a target of cutting their number from 24,000 to 10,000 by 2010, but Li said that goal was highly unlikely.
In what appears to be blatant disregard of the ban on new small operations, four in five of the 4,000 mines currently being built or expanded are small, the state-run China Daily said.
Local officials are often blamed for flouting regulations, either because they have a direct economic interest or because they see them as a convenient way to absorb redundant labour.
Saying the problems were "hard to ignore" any longer, Li said accidents had picked up this Spring, suggesting small mines were to blame.
"Since mid- to late March, in some localities small mines that had previously been closed have reopened and there's been a rebound in accidents," Li said.
Small mines account for one third of the national coal production, and two thirds of all deaths from accidents, the China Daily said.
In 2006, accidents in small mines killed 3,431 people out of an overall industry-wide death toll of 4,746 people, the paper said, although independent monitors say the real number of fatalities is likely far higher.
Coal provides about 70 per cent of China's booming energy output.