ULAANBATAAR, Mongolia — Deep inside the earth, the eyes of blackened miners shimmer under spotlights as they hammer endlessly upon rock, tapping the vein of Mongolia’s largest illegal coal mine. The Nalaikh mine, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is both a vision from the past and a rogue operation from the present.
Coal dust streaks the miners’ cheeks, their hands, their worn clothes. In many cases, whether they know it or not, their lungs are being ruined by coal and nicotine. They risk their lives every time they go into the pits.
Frequently, theirs is a losing bet. The miners here are part of a booming complex of illegal mining in Mongolia, the seamy underside of an expansion of legal mining in the past several years. Fatal accidents take place at a higher rate here than in the infamously deadly China mines, as private operators seek to maximize profits by skimping on safety gear.
The miners crawl in the darkness for hundreds of meters through narrow, rambling passages before reaching the working face, where the new coal is cut. Dug with shovels and picks, the tunnels have few timber supports — a minimum safety standard in any coal mine, and the walls crumble as carts loaded with coal slide up, pulled from the outside by trucks. The air feels chill and still; only a few in Nalaikh can afford ventilators, another minimum safety standard in coal mining.
Every year, about a dozen miners die here. That’s the official figure. In reality, nobody knows how many people are buried in the makeshift pits, as Nalaikh largely lies beyond the authorities’ control.
Across Mongolia, the national Mine Rescue Service has recorded 422 peak-season accidents since 2000, with collapses and explosions claiming at least 175 victims. With an average annual production of 700,000 tons, that means one fatality for every 56,000 tons of coal mined, making Nalaikh far deadlier than Chinese coal mines, where one miner dies for every 2.7 million tons of coal mined.
“But this one is safe,” says Ganzorig B., referring to the particular mine shaft he is working with eight fellow miners. Ganrozig, like most Mongolians, omits or abbreviates to the first letter his last name. He smiles as he offers his disclaimer, trying to sound reassuring.
Mongolia has gained a worldwide reputation as the next big thing in mining. Some people call it Minegolia, and companies from all over the globe have rushed in to tap its vast coal, copper and gold deposits. With investments for billions of dollars lining up, the country’s economy posted double-digit growth rates in each of the last three years.
Yet it is Nalaikh’s “informal” coal that still heats up half of Ulaanbaatar during Mongolia’s frigid winter. Though only a handful of the hundreds of mine shafts active in Nalaikh are legally authorized, that has not stopped scores of local miners from coming back, winter after winter.
“Every autumn we come back and dig new holes, because the old ones are either depleted or collapsed,” Ganzorig said.
Ganzorig’s mine shaft lies just down the road from the ruins of the official, vast mining operation that the government used to run here. Opened in 1922, the Nalaikh State Mine was the nation’s first industrial mining operation. It provided jobs, and the usual dose of mining tragedies, to generations of local men before going bust in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet-backed state economy dried up its subsidies. A few words can still be read on the façade of the old office building: “Nalaikh Great Mine.”
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