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News Extra: Soma disaster highlights poor safety record in Turkish coal mines

02 June 2014

On May 13 an explosion at a coal mine in Soma, Western Turkey, caused an underground mine fire, which burned until May 15. The country’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Taner Yildiz, confirmed on May 17 that 301 miners lost their lives in the incident, making it the worst mine disaster in Turkey's history. 

Stock image
Stock image

Yildiz said the explosion happened during a shift change, when 787 miners were underground. Other than the fatalities, there were 80 miners injured in the disaster.

The cause of the explosion, which occurred two kilometres below the surface, is under investigation, with a transformer explosion considered the most likely scenario. Initial indications are that the blast caused the mine's lifts to stop functioning, trapping many of the victims underground. According to Hurriyet, a majority of the fatalities were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mine operating company Soma Holding said that it upheld the highest safety standards, and pointed out  the mine had been inspected as recently as March, with no problems reported.
A report by RT said the Izmir branch of the Chamber of Electricians released a statement claiming that the fire was not caused by an electrical failure. Inspectors affiliated with the Chamber claimed recent inspections had shown that poisonous and explosive gas detection systems in the mine, and its air circulation systems, were “insufficient and old." They allege a coal fire broke out 700 metres underground and fans spread the flames and smoke throughout the mine.

The Soma mine, formerly a state-owned company, was privatised in 2005. In 2012, Alp Gürkan, CEO of Soma Holding, told Hurriyet that following privatisation, the cost of producing coal at the mine had decreased from about $140 to $24 per ton.

Miners protested about dangerous mining conditions in late 2013, and the CHP opposition party proposed a motion in the National Assembly of Turkey to investigate and improve mine safety only weeks before the disaster, but this was rejected by the ruling AKP party.
According to a report issued in 2010 by the Turkish Economy Policies Research Foundation (TEPAV), in 2008, there were 7.22 deaths per million tons of coal mined in Turkey (the highest figure in the world), 5 times the rate in China (1.27) and 361 times the rate in the US (0.02).

Official statistics record that more than 3,000 coal miners died in mining accidents from 1941 to April 2014. In 2012, 78 miners were killed in accidents, and 95 died in 2013. Prior to the Soma disaster, the deadliest accident in recent Turkish mining history occurred in 1992, when an explosion at a mine in Zonguldak on the Black Sea killed 263 people.

National Geographic quoted Yücel Demiral, an occupational health specialist based in western Turkey who co-authored a paper last year on coal mine safety, as saying there were only 1,000 government workplace inspectors in a country of 81 million, and that supervisory authorities lacked resources. "There is a lack of supervision and auditing, and the conditions are primitive in both public and private enterprises."

The AKP has nearly doubled the share of coal in Turkey's domestic energy production through its privatization drive. According to Energy Minister Yildiz, 30% of the target energy production of 100 billion MWh per year in 2023 should be from domestically-produced coal, up from the current figure of 13%.

In a report released last month, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said that Turkish coal consumption has risen from 80 million tons to 110 million tons in the period 2001-10.

On May 18, Turkish police detained 24 people, including executives of Soma Holding.
Local media reported that Ramazan Dogru, the general manager of the mine, and its operations manager, Akin Celik, were among those being held on suspicion of "neglect and causing multiple deaths".

The arrests signal a shift in relations between the mining company and the government. After the accident, questions were asked about mine owner Alp Gürkan's political connections. His wife is said to be a local councillor for the governing party and in the past, Soma Holding was the source of the free bags of coal distributed by AKP in the run-up to elections.

The deaths have stirred up fresh antipathy towards the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been criticised for last summer's crackdown on protesters in Istanbul's Taksim Square and his increasingly intolerant stance towards any dissent. His comments that "this is what happens in coal mining" prompted a furious reaction in Soma, where he was confronted by angry protesters on May 14.

But the scale of the disaster and political fallout could finally shame the Turkish government into taking concrete steps to improve mine safety.

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