The Not So Good Earth
SHANGMA HUANGTOU, China — When Wei Yong returned home 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," Mr. 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, here in this small village in the central province of Shanxi, three large coal mining operations had been burrowing underground for coal — 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 coal mining boom that is devastating large swaths of north China, where some of the nation's richest coal deposits lie. China is the world's largest producer of coal, and much of it is mined here.
While Shanxi provides the fuel that powers China's sizzling economy, thousands of acres of land are sinking because of the ravages of underground 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 — are 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.
Indeed, the tremors here have not stopped, residents say. And so after years of suffering with increasingly foul air and sandstorms fed by a growing man-made 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, just 650 yards west of the village, has fouled the air; and dust from the man-made mountain on the east side slams into the village daily.
"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. And all day long trucks overloaded with coal rumble past the village, cracking the roads and spraying coal waste on road-side homes.
Indeed, not long ago residents here grew so angry that they blocked the road that passes 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, called moving the village people "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 Mr. Wei, 47, a former government official and the village's favorite son, the first to leave for college in the 1970's.
Mr. Wei, a jovial man, knows something about the environmental destruction 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 Mr. Wei was a young boy growing up here in the 1960's, he 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," Mr. Wei said.
Everyone here talks about the stream.
"When I was young this stream was very clear," said 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 1980's, 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 here in north China. 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 nation's new energy base.
The mine was created about a mile east of the village. And when the new project broke ground, residents recall, Mr. Hammer flew in by private jet and Prime Minister Li Peng came for the ceremony.
Years later, Mr. 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 1990's, the mine was operating around the clock. Today, the mountain stands about 500 feet tall and covers 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 mountain top, where it is dumped onto the pile.
Complaints flow easily. Liu Runhua took a visitor to her home and pointed at the cracks in her new house. "Take a look at these gaps," she said.
Another resident, 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 here 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 from a mile away.
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.
And that is what happened in Richard Llewellyn's best-selling 1939 novel "How Green Was My Valley," also the story of a Welsh village destroyed by coal mining.
The people here don't know those stories. But they can sense them.
"There are three coal mines surrounding the village and only one road out," said Mr. Wei, who has pleaded with his mother to leave the village.
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," he said, surveying the sloping, tilted farmland. "Two years ago this land was flat. Now look at it."
At a town meeting here a year ago, the villagers gathered and decided they had to move before the village is sucked under.
Some residents later talked about the village's founding myth, an old fable about how the beautiful village was founded in ancient times with a small lake in its center. But one day, according to the fable, a smart man from southern China came and stole the village frog, bringing ruin to Shangma Huangtou."I don't believe this myth," Mr. Lin, the village chief, said. "I believe there's no water because of the coal mines. The earth is like the human body. And the water is like the blood in your veins. But now there's no water; no blood."
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