* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Residents of Dali Village have lost their land to subsidence, and say both the mining company and local government have done little to make amends
HUAINAN CITY, China, March 6 (Sixth Tone) - It only takes the faintest sound of a crack and Wang Juan jolts awake. “Our house won’t fall down, will it?” she whispers to her husband, looking for reassurance that their family will be safe, at least for one more night.
Since 2007, Huainan Mining Industry Co. Ltd. has been exploiting the soil underneath Dali Village, part of Huainan City in China’s eastern Anhui province. It’s one of the biggest underground coal mines in Asia. From beneath Wang’s feet, 5 million tons of coal are extracted each year.
And Dali, her home, is sinking.
“We’ve heard about the problems in other villages, but we never thought this could happen to us,” Wang tells Sixth Tone. About five years after the coal mine started operating, the first cracks appeared in their floors, walls and ceilings. What began as fine lines over time turned into deeper fissures — heralds of the end of their bustling town of farmers.
In less than a decade, the changes to the town were as deep and far-reaching as the coal mine underneath. Wang’s house still stands, but much of Dali is underwater.
With each truckload of coal that was taken out of the mine, the cavities under Dali grew, causing the ground on which the village was built to give in, little by little, explains Guo Guangli, a professor of mining subsidence and restoration studies at China University of Mining and Technology in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province.
Like most coal mines, Guo says, the one operating beneath Dali extracts coal located not only in the ground beneath the village, but also under the groundwater. As most of the village has now sunk several meters, some parts have become surrounded by groundwater the mine has forced to the surface.
The affected area is so big that a vast lake has formed in just a few years. Most villagers tore down their houses when the water started to seep in, hoping to at least sell some building materials for a small sum of money before relocating. The houses of the few holdout families are now inundated and stand in the middle of the mine-made lake.
Almost a tenth of Huainan City has slumped into the earth. Out of more than 2.3 million residents, about 311,000 now live on lower ground, in houses with cracks that often stretch across the ceiling, according to Huainan authorities.
Although Wang’s house hasn’t hit the groundwater yet, she worries that it may collapse at any time. “We are afraid that someday, the ceiling or the wall will split and fall off,” the 35-year-old says, staring at a long, deep crack across the concrete floor.
Dali used to be a farming village of about 1,000 residents.
“Not far from my house, there was a primary school that my daughter went to, and there were small stores and small roads where cars and bikes went back and forth,” Wang says. Now, they have been swallowed by the lake.
The subsidence has decimated the village. Only about 20 people still live here, including Wang, her husband, and their two children. The rest have given up and moved into apartments partly paid for by the mining company. An annual compensation payment has also been allocated for the farmland that was swallowed by the ground.
In Guqiao Township, to which Dali Village belongs, about 13,000 people from 5 villages have been relocated. Another 6,000 people will be forced to follow suit in the near future, according to Guqiao authorities.
The World Bank committed $100 million to a $170 million rehabilitation project in the area in 2015, but declined to comment on its progress.
Under Article 32 of the coal law, prospectors are to be held responsible for the restoration or reuse of land, but there’s little evidence that the Huainan Mining Co. has tried to fulfill these obligations. A local government official claimed that they built at least one small solar power plant, though Sixth Tone was not able to independently verify this claim. The company’s site in Guqiao and its resource and environment department declined to comment, referring all questions to the publicity department, which did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
If coal mining continues, China could see an area the size of Beijing affected by subsidence by the year 2020, according to a study by Liang Hailin of China Shenhua Energy Co. Ltd.
To deal with the impact, Anhui’s provincial government set up a special department in 2009 that was tasked with tackling the issue. Soon afterward, the department published a plan outlining ways to redress subsidence in the period from 2012 to 2020.
Under the plan, the local government would restore the landscape according to the particular circumstances of the land in question. If land has sunk less than 1.5 meters, it can still be used for farming or construction. Any deeper than 1.5 meters and the land should be developed into fish farms or tourist areas — although the plan did not elaborate on what might draw tourists to such desolate areas.
The underlying issue, however, is that most areas have sunk much lower than just a couple of meters: The average, says Sun Guoquan, head of the special administrative department, is six to seven meters. Some parts have sunk by nearly 20 meters.
“And most of these areas are still sinking deeper,” Sun says, which makes any kind of redevelopment acutely difficult.