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Russian administration calls Arctic coal mine blasts that killed 36 a "natural disaster"

01 March 2016

A new explosion at the Severnaya coal mine in Vorkuta, northern Russia, killed five rescuers and one miner on February 28. This explosion occurred during efforts to rescue workers trapped underground after the first two blasts at the mine three days earlier. Five people were reported injured as a result of the latest explosion. 

Stock image
Stock image

On February 29, the Emergencies Ministry officially confirmed that none of the 26 miners whom the rescuers were trying to save from the February 26 blasts had survived, bringing the total death toll from the three explosions to 36 people. The first two killed four miners outright and trapped the other 26 in an area behind rockfall and where fierce fires were raging.

A spokesperson for JSC Vorkutaugol, operator of the Severnaya coal mine, told TASS the rescuers were operating at a “normal safety distance”, but the second blast reached them and also killed a hoisting engineer supplying materials to the rescue site.

On February 26, 80 of the 110 miners underground were evacuated from the mine. Russian news sources reported that 550 people and 80 pieces of equipment were involved in the rescue effort. The mine’s location, above the Arctic Circle, made the operation extremely difficult.

Emergency services had warned of the possibility of another underground blast remains because of the high levels of methane in the mine. All rescue teams and specialists were rapidly evacuated from the mine after the second explosion.

A Vorkutaugol spokesperson told journalists the site of the explosion would be isolated by pumping nitrogen into the mine and production should resume relatively quickly.

Three days of mourning were announced for the victims of the disaster in the Komi Republic, where the mine is situated. Local government officials and the administration of the city of Vorkuta have been ordered to take all necessary measures to assist the families of the victims.

JSC Vorkutaugol is owned by the Severstal steel and industrial group headed by Russian billionaire Alexei Mordashov.

According to a report by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on March 1, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said on February 29 that preliminary evidence from an investigation showed the disaster was a result of natural causes rather than negligence or fraud.

"At this point, based on the analysis of the data from both Rostekhnadzor (Russia's industrial safety watchdog) and the Investigative Committee, it is clear that there was an abrupt outburst, increase in methane concentration. ... There was no gradual methane concentration increase, sensors did not register anything of the kind, so it was almost impossible to prevent the outburst using sensing devices," he said.

Dvorkovich said the mine operator, Vorkutaugol, acted "according to the rules."

Pechora Alexander Goncharenko, head of Rostekhnadzor's regional branch, said preliminary evidence suggests the incident was "a natural disaster" caused by methane leaks that occur naturally in coal mines.

But RFE/RL quoted trade union members, miners, and relatives of those that died saying they had serious concerns about the levels of methane in the pit and that workers feared something could go wrong.

Methane explosions occur regularly in Russian coal mines. In 2007, an explosion at a mine in Ulyanovskaya in Siberia killed 110 people.

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