Jun 08, 2019 10:55 AM

Photo Essay: Dirty, Dangerous Work Scrabbling For a Living Around Coal Waste Dumps

February 2007, Pingdingshan, Henan province: Without waiting for the pile to settle, collectors rush towards the gangue hill, ignoring the risks of falling debris.
February 2007, Pingdingshan, Henan province: Without waiting for the pile to settle, collectors rush towards the gangue hill, ignoring the risks of falling debris.

Pingdingshan City is a large coal industry base located in the Central Plains of China’s Henan province. For many years, coal gangue — the by-product of coal mines and production — has accumulated into more than ten gangue hills. Nearby villagers and migrant workers make money by picking the coal out of the gangue hills to support their families or subsidize their livelihoods.

Collecting coal is a dirty, tiresome, and dangerous business. Wastewater from coal dust and gangue mix with perspiration and the collectors get covered in dirt. When picking up coal, they must be on guard against rubbish tumbling down the hills. It could injure or even kill them. In order to grab the coal, the collectors rush up without waiting for all the gangue to settle. Sometimes, they are injured by the gangue.

The spontaneous combustion of coal gangue not only releases a lot of heat, but also gases such as carbon monoxide, leaving the collectors short of breath. Some of the gangue piles are also unstable and at risk of collapse. In 2005, four gangue piles collapsed, causing eight deaths, burning more than 100 people from the heat waves, and destroying more than 40 houses. And yet, many people still dare to venture onto the gangue hills to earn tens of yuan per day.

No one wants to pick coal from the gangue hills. Some mines contract local villagers to collect the coal; some mines contract out the actual gangue hills to individuals, who then contract to the pickers. The coal collectors work day and night, in wind and rain, and are paid very little.

As the gangue hills continue to grow, the residents nearby suffer. Some houses have been destroyed by debris from the hills. The dust has affected the harvest of crops and impacted the villagers’ incomes. The waste piles make many of the villagers feel depressed.

In recent years, what used to be an annoyance has become more valued due to increasing government efforts to improve the environment. Some have taken advantage of the rising coal prices, mixing gangue with raw coal and selling it. Since 2005, many coal mines have been exploiting the gangue hills, using them to produce hollow bricks and other products. Many of the waste dumps no longer exist and have faded from memory.

These photos tracked and captured the lives around the mining area and the gangue hills between 1998-2009.


May 2001: Coal collectors on a gangue hill.


July 2003: Bare-chested coal pickers are covered in coal dust.


November 2002: Workers screening gangue particles from coal gangue wear protective face masks.


January 2002: To check a piece of coal, collectors hold it against a high-pressure water pump to flush the gangue.


August 2001: A coal collector’s blistered hands covered in coal dust.


Stacked bags of collected coal to be slid down the hill. Each step of the process is risky.


August 2003: Children on summer vacation jump on piles of coal near the gangue hills.


February 2001: Children play on the roller skating rink near the gangue piles.

Contact translator Ren Qiuyu (

Register to read this article for free.
Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code