Skip to Content

China’s Coal Towns Are Literally Sinking

A worker clears a conveyer belt used to transport coal, near a coal mine at Datong, in China's northern Shanxi province. Photograph by Greg Baker — AFP via Getty Images

China’s ecological disaster is most apparent in the form of smoggy skies. But the potentially bigger danger has long been China’s polluted ground floor—chemical plants spoiling water tables, waste metals turning arable soil toxic, and desertification spreading across the country’s northwest.

Add another worry to the list: a sinking ground, thanks to decades of reckless coal mining.

The central province of Shanxi is moving more than 650,000 people by the end of next year from regions made unsafe from coal companies burrowing under them for years. In addition, the local government calculates that coal mining has caused more than $10 billion in environmental costs, according to Reuters.

See also: How British Firms Built a Pyramid Scheme in China That Lost Millions

In one village, the cracking ground is falling walls, creating sinkholes, and driving out residents who have the money to leave. For those who don’t, they live fearing the 100 former pits around their village will sink the ground beneath their homes.

China is rapidly reducing coal use. But the turnaround is coming after coal has provided about two-thirds of China’s electrical power for decades, and after the Chinese economic boom in the 2000s saw miners popping up to increase the nation’s coal supply, with many skirting regulations or simply paying off local governments to mine dangerously close to population areas, as Reuters notes.

For more on China, watch Fortune’s video:


China’s regulators said recently that the country would spend $11 billion cleaning up the abandoned coal mine problem in the next five years.

But not before thousands more people are displaced, or worse.