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Mongolia’s illegal coal mines

World Coal,

The expansion of legal mining over recent years in Mongolia has also seen a dramatic increase in the number of illegal mines in operation. Drawn by the prospect of higher wages and warmer homes during the cold Mongolian winters, miners frequently work in unventilated mine shafts that are prone to collapse, risking their lives for the sake of a few tugriks.

The illegal mines also pose a problem for government authorities, who find it difficult to keep track of and crack down on the owners of the illegal mines. With bribery of police commonplace, a blind eye is often turned to operations that are able to undercut legal and permitted operations by selling their coal at a cheaper price.


40 km from the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, a booming complex of illegal mining has developed around the old soviet-owned coal mine in Nalaikh. Fatal accidents take place at a higher rate in these mines than in the infamously deadly China mines, as private operators seek to maximise profits by avoiding expenses on safety gear and equipment.

Story Developing Mongolia's coal industry

Officially, a dozen miners die in the Nalaikh mine tunnels each year. However, since Nalaikh lies largely beyond the authorities’ control, it is impossible to ascertain how many people are buried in the makeshift pits – many of which lack even the basic safety feature of timber supports.

The Mongolian Mine Rescue Service has recorded 422 peak-season accidents since 2000, with collapses and explosions claiming at least 175 victims. With an annual production of 700,000 t, this means there is one fatality for every 56,000 t of coal mined.

Despite the risks involved, the miners return to the dangerous tunnels time after time. “Every autumn we come back and dig new holes, because the old ones are either depleted or collapsed,” Ganzorig B, one of the miners working in an illegal mine, told the International Business Times.

The coal mined by workers like Ganzorig at Nalaikh is used to heat half of Ulaanbaatar during the winter months. Although companies across the globe are lining up to exploit the vast mineral reserves inside Mongolia’s borders, the country still lacks vital infrastructure and access to regulated, legal fuels for heating, such as coal.

Soviet collapse

In 1922, the Nalaikh state mine was Mongolia’s first industrial mining operation. It ran until the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet-backed state economy stopped providing the mine with subsidies.

Today, among the ruins of the old state mining company’s operations – old office buildings, traces of a railway line and a skeleton of an old loading station – more than 200 active mine shafts run beneath the ground. Only 26 of these are authorized, according to the office of the governor of Nalaikh district.

After the state mine closed down, it was divided by Mongolian authoroities into small pots and then privatised. However, demand for coal among the nation’s citizens has grown continually, and the government has made few signs of action towards restricting the expansion of illegal mining.

The mining activity at Malaikh has attracted thousands of Mongolians eager for jobs and above-average wages. Up to 2000 hand miners work at Nalaikh from October to May. They supply around 70% of the 1 million tpa of coal burned in Ulaanbataar’s underprivileged ger districts. During winter, more than 750,000 people heat their gers – the traditional Mongolian nomadic tents – using primitive stokes fed with 3 – 50 kg/day of coal.

Environmental and safety concerns

The intense use of coal burned on these stoves has turned a region of Mongolia once famed for its blue skies into one of the world’s most polluted, according to a recent study by the World Health Organization.

With a famously high calorific value, Nalaikh coal is sold throughout the ger districts in 15 kg yellow bags for around 2000 tugriks (US$ 1.10).

As those in control of the illegal mines pay no tax for their produce, they can attract workers with higher salaries than those offered by legal operations. However, the paucity of safety measures at such mines is a growing concern for Mongolian mine rescue services. “In the past, the mine's operation would go deeper and be more complex, but we had the names and numbers of those who were down and a rescue team would be sent out for any accident," said Janchiv T., who has worked in Nalaikh as a rescuer since the 1970s. "Whereas today, we don't really know what is happening and how many people get stuck underground when accidents happen.” 

Investment in legal mining

Nyamsuren S., general director of the Mine Rescue Service, said in an interview that the government was looking at developing large untapped deposits by encouraging mining companies to invest in the country’s mining industry via legal routes. “We are concentrating on how to build one big, reliable project, and local mining firm Tsagaan Shonkhoor will carry out some studies on it this spring,” Nyamsuren said.

Over the summer of 2014, though most – if not all – of the illegal mines will close and the workers who mine them will leave, the Nalaikh minesite will be frequented by engineers from Tsagaan Shonkhoor (TS) – a local Mongolian private mining company – who will stay at the site while conducting surveys.

Coal in Mongolia

Coal is Mongolia’s largest item of export, accounting for 24% of total exports in 2013. Last year, the country exported 18 million t, up from just 2.2 million t in 2005, according to figures from the mining ministry. The government expects to increase exports to 83 million t by 2028 through the development of large untapped deposits, such as lie under the massive Tavan Tolgoi basin, where official estimates put total coal reserves at more than 6 billion t.

Nalaikh does not feature among Mongolia's most appealing coal reserves, and rarely makes it onto the agenda of key conferences held in the country, such as Coal Mongolia. Yet there is still plenty of coal left to dig out. TS, which legally owns some mining licenses in the western part of the basin, estimates there are coal reserves of about 24 million t, and authorities are backing a project by the company to restart industrial mining operations at the site.

However, TS has faced fierce opposition from the illegal miners, who are suspicious of the company’s alleged Chinese ownership. In 2007, miners armed with spades and crowbars attacked TS employees.

Until the government makes good on its promise to regulate the mining activities, the illegal mines at Nalaikh will open once more come October. 

Edited from various sources by Sam Dodson

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