Mined-out cities: The social cost of coal

Stam Lee’s photographs of Juyuan in Jiangxi show coal mining’s harsh legacy: a struggling population, damaged houses, polluted water and little hope

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part series examining the impact of the coal industry on rural China. To read the first part please click here.  

The Jiangxi city of Pingxiang, in southeast China, started relocating residents affected by subsidence, caused by coal mining, as early as 2004. The village of Juyuan lies within the affected area, but more than ten years later some of the villagers are still waiting. The mines are closed, the owners gone, and the locals have been left to deal with the consequences of subsiding homes and environmental pollution.

I thought they were stealing coal at first. I saw one old man leading six old women down to a fork in the road, moving like sprinters who’d just heard the starting gun. Upon reaching the road, they stopped to beg an approaching lorry for money.

The driver reaches down to hand over some loose change. The woman doesn’t count it. The five blocking the lorry step aside and it drives on. Some drivers speed up as they approach, passing before they can reach the road. They stop work at 6pm, having earned 21.80 yuan (US$3); just over three yuan (half a dollar) each.

Few people live in the village now; you just see the occasional older person or a child. The dogs bark incessantly at strangers. Passing coal lorries or buses stir up clouds of black coal dust, forcing passers-by to cover their faces and flee.

Asi smokes by the ventilation shaft of an abandoned mine. He doesn’t see what else he can do. His home is a small brick building near a mine pit. Now mining has stopped the pit has become a small lake. His home is riddled with cracks. Unstable homes back on to mining pits, which have filled with water now the mines are abandoned. The houses are crumbling with cracks wide enough in points to insert three fingers into. The concrete floors are loose and uneven.

Pingxiang is known as the coal capital of southern China. The area flourished after the foundation of the People’s Republic, thanks to coal, and at one point there were 1,000 mines operating here. But a century of mining has exhausted the reserves and left the villagers with major subsidence problems.

The Juyuan mine was owned by the Pingxiang Coal Group and was part of China’s planned economy. As subsidence in the village worsened, many people were relocated en masse to a place called Wuliting in the city’s Xiangdong district.

The “workers’ villages” now stand empty. But not everyone from the village was moved. Local officials say that there wasn’t enough money, and so residents whose homes were badly affected were moved first, with the others only given a one-off payment of 1,000 – 2,000 yuan (US$145 – US$290) to cover repairs and told to wait for reassessment in the future. They’ve been waiting over ten years, and have received no more compensation.

It’s not just subsidence that’s a problem; pollution also casts a shadow over the village. There are slogans on the walls of the buildings calling for villagers to use stoves designed to prevent indoor fluorine pollution; the pollutant is released from burning coal, and high levels in the air and drinking water causes fluorine poisoning, staining teeth and leading to skeletal fluorosis, causing pain and damage to bones and joints.

Some of the residents still waiting to move have huge cracks in their walls – in many cases the cracks are getting bigger, and doors and windows no longer open. Some people are too scared to sleep at night.

All the surface water here flows down into abandoned mines, leaving the villagers forced to use the muddy water which flows off the hillsides. After repeatedly complaining, they were able to use groundwater from the mines, but that water has high levels of calcium and they’re worried it might not be safe. They have to travel three kilometres to get water or go into town to buy bottled water.

This text and photographs were published on Kanjian, Sina’s photography section, on May 5, 2016, and are republished by China Dialogue with the author’s consent.