JIM LEHRER: Now, China's dangerous coal mines. Today, the bodies of 18 coal miners were found after an underground blast in a mine in Southwest China. Coal mine hazards were a topic at the just-completed National People's Congress in Beijing. We have a report from Ian Williams of Independent Television News.
IAN WILLIAMS: The last dribble of coal from a private pit near Datong City, China's mining heartland. The pit's been told to shut down pending a safety inspection, but they were determined to shift as much coal as possible before grudgingly complying.
The authorities have cut power to some mines that haven't complied. China's explosive economic growth is built on coal, but this area, which produces half the country's output, was largely at a standstill this week as a result of an unprecedented safety crackdown.
Coal mining in China is one of the most difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs in the world, claiming on average at least 15 lives a day, though here their biggest concern was the loss of income as a result of the shutdown.
COAL MINER (Translated): Of course my family's really worried about my safety, but I can earn good money here.
ANOTHER COAL MINER (Translated): I'll give it another year, maybe two. I can't take more than that or my health will start to suffer.
IAN WILLIAMS: The timing of the safety crackdown isn't coincidental, coming during the annual meeting of China's parliament, where the carnage in the nation's mines has even managed to stir the usually docile delegates.
ANCHOR: Tougher measures will be taken to improve the nation's work safety record.
IAN WILLIAMS: State television has carried unusually frank reports about what it called the "seriously devastating accidents" to hit the industry.
REPORTER: The price of development is being paid in blood, sweat and tears.
IAN WILLIAMS: And the prime minister has pledged more cash and tougher action. The immediate catalyst for the crackdown was last month's explosion at a mine in Liaoning Province that killed more than 200 miners -- the worst reported disaster in decades.
Private mines are frequently blamed for cutting corners on safety but this was a large state-owned pit. It was only the latest in a string of accidents that, according to official statistics, have killed more than 6,000 miners in the last year alone. Unofficial estimates are three times higher.
The authorities have distributed this video on mine safety. Lesson one: Keep your hard hat on. It also provides a rare glimpse of life underground. Coal provides 70 percent of China's energy, and with prices soaring and central control often tenuous at best, there's plenty of incentive for local mines to ignore the rules.
The reality is that China simply can't get enough of this stuff. With many provinces already suffering blackouts because of power shortages, there is an insatiable, almost desperate, demand for coal. And while the current safety crackdown is welcome, cynics fear it won't last much beyond the end of the current session of parliament.
The Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin is working with mainland lawyers in an effort to sue pits where recent accidents have happened. It would be China's first civil action of this kind.
Their first target is a state-owned mine in Shaanxi Province, where 166 people died in a November explosion. Relatives, who rioted soon afterwards, have alleged that managers, chasing a large bonus, forced miners to work in spite of reports of gas leaks and fires days before.
HAN DONGFANG: The miners were scared and many miners were asking for sick leave, but being told, "Okay, if you want to have sick leave, you will leave forever." And we have been talking to these victims' families and these wives and children, they told us these stories, how their father, their husband, you know, told them, "I don't want to go but I have to go."
IAN WILLIAMS: It's more difficult to sue private mines, since many operate without a license and are technically illegal. In Datong, the suspension of mining this week has done little to clear the air. Coal dust is everywhere.
Some mine owners simply see the appalling death rate as the inevitable price to pay for China's rush to development. Safety inspectors come and they go, but the intense pressure to produce yet more coal shows no sign of abating.