‘Explosions like this in the mines happen all the time': What the Turkish disaster says about the world’s coal industry – and about all of us

May 15, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

Turkey Mining Accident

The rows of open graves for the mine accident victims in Soma, Turkey, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Rescuers desperately raced against time to reach more than 200 miners trapped underground Wednesday after an explosion and fire at a coal mine killed at least 200 workers, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Wednesday.(AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

A lot of the coverage you see in U.S. news media this morning of the horrible mining explosion and fire  in the coalfields of Turkey has focused, perhaps understandably, on the protests that have erupted in the aftermath of this unspeakable disaster. Here’s USA Today, for example:

APTOPIX Turkey Mining AccidentProtests erupted across the country and angry relatives of the nearly 300 victims of a mine disaster booed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he visited the mine and told them that mine accidents are “usual things.”

In the capital Ankara, police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a group of students who tried to march on the Energy Ministry in protest of poor mine safety. Protests also broke out in front of the offices of the mining company, Soma Holding, in Soma and near Taksim Square in Istanbul – the center of anti-government protests last year.

And here’s The New York Times:

As the death toll from Turkey’s worst mining accident rose on Thursday, labor leaders called for a one-day strike, adding to the growing political challenges facing the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over its handling of the disaster.

Demonstrations broke out on Wednesday in Ankara, the capital, and in Istanbul, as public displeasure surfaced. Rescue workers, meanwhile, struggled to locate scores of coal miners still unaccounted for after an explosion ignited underground fires a day earlier. Late on Wednesday, the official death toll was put at 274 but it increased to 282 on Thursday when eight more bodies were recovered.

Other coverage has focused on the desperate search for survivors, as this BBC account did:

As ambulances took away an increasing number of bodies, some of the bereaved wailed uncontrollably and were carried away by their families.

Nearly 450 workers have been rescued, according to the mine operator. However, no survivors have been found in the last few hours.

Mr Erdogan said 80 of those rescued had been treated for injuries, none of which were serious. Nineteen of these had already been discharged from hospital.

The BBC’s James Reynolds in Soma says family members of missing miners are gathered at the hospital. They told him they would not move from there until they got information about their loved ones.

Of course, then there’s the political reaction from Turkey:

Recep Tayyip ErdoganOpponents blamed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s (right)  government for privatizing the country’s mines and ignoring repeated warnings about their safety.

“We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing a very great pain,” Erdogan told a news conference after visiting the site. But he appeared to turn defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place at the mine.

Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,” he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.

If that doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve forgotten what Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said not so long ago, after two West Virginia miners were killed in separate — but entirely preventable  (see here and here) — accidents on the same day:

Today, four families were shaken by the unexpected but always present danger associated with mining. While we strive to ensure the safety of our coal miners, accidents do occur. Joanne and I pray for the miners and their families. We ask all West Virginians to do the same.

But as I read these accounts, all that I can really focus on is how needless all of this death and suffering really is. As we mentioned yesterday, coal-mining disasters are preventable. We’ve known for decades what causes them and what steps can be taken to stop them from happening. Even the slow horror of one-by-one coal-mining deaths in roof falls or machinery accidents can be prevented.  So why don’t we put an end to coal-mining deaths and disasters?

Over at NPR, Howard Berkes spent some time on that question, in a piece headlined Past Disasters Haunt Modern-Day Coal Mining Accidents.

Talking with long time mine safety expert and advocate Davitt McAteer, Howard’s piece explains how the Turkish disaster may have began with the sort of electrical system problem that is relatively easy to avoid, even in underground coal mines. And, McAteer explains, the death toll in Turkey is almost certain far worse than it needed to be, because the blast occurred at shift change when — because of the operators’ desire not to shut down equipment during that process — twice as many workers were underground as might otherwise have been. Commenting on that practice, McAteer told Howard:

It enhances productivity by keeping the production in operation, but what it does is double the number of people at risk.

Turkey Mining Accident

The main entrance of the coal mine in Soma, Turkey, Wednesday, May 14, 2014.  An explosion and fire at the coal mine killed at least 232 workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. Turkey’s Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of the accident. (AP Photo/Depo Photos)

Then there are the questions about whether there was an adequate escape plan, with secondary escape routes, rescue chambers, emergency breathing equipment, and all of those sorts of things.

At the end, though, as McAteer and Howard explained, the bottom line is mine operators putting production ahead of safety and mining regulators unable or unwilling to stop them.

Updated: There’s more from Howard Berkes in this post to NPR’s “The Two-Way” blog.

This morning, United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts issued this statement about the events in Turkey:

Miners Public Employees RallyThe horrific news coming from the coal mine near Soma, Turkey where nearly 300 miners have been killed and scores more are missing is a punch in the gut for every coal miner everywhere in the world. The hearts and prayers of every UMWA member and our families are with the families of the miners who lost their lives, and we sincerely hope that rescue efforts are possible and successful for those who remain trapped.

The magnitude of this tragedy is appalling. I see where the media is calling this an industrial ‘accident,’ but a disaster on this scale is no accident. This mine was clearly a bomb waiting to go off. There could not have been any regulatory enforcement or company oversight of what went on in that mine.

It has been nearly a century since we have seen disasters on this scale in the United States or Canada. Through strong laws and regulations, we have been able to develop workplace protections that keep our miners safe from the kinds of conditions that must have existed in that Turkish mine.

What we have done here isn’t magical. It can be and has been applied elsewhere in the world. We stand ready to work with the Turkish miners and their government to help develop safety and health procedures that can help put an end to the possibility of these sorts of massive disasters in the future.

Much of what President Roberts says there is spot on. For example, as Davitt McAteer pointed out in his discussion with Howard Berkes, the mine that blew up in Turkey had been inspected five times in the last two years. In the U.S., all underground coal mines are subject to complete inspections every quarter by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. And all manner of special inspections, spot inspections and technical inspections are done on top of that. Mine safety experts like those at the UMWA obviously have a lot to offer mining communities in place like Turkey.

But we ought not get too sure of ourselves here in the United States. It wasn’t so long ago that we were reminded in an all too brutal way that our mining industry was far behind other countries in vital mine rescue technology (see here and here) and other important protections, such as stronger seals for mined-out areas. And while MSHA’s national rule to require proximity devices continues to languish at the White House, and West Virginia officials only grudgingly moved forward with a watered-down proximity rule, mines in Canada, South Africa and Australia are moving forward with this life-saving technology.

U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez issued this statement about the Turkish mine disaster:

The United States stands in solidarity with Turkey as rescue efforts continue. We have experienced mine tragedies and disasters in our country over the years and understand the difficulties of the rescue operations and the grief and suffering of the families during these times.

Tragedies like this remind us once again of the need to ensure that all workers return home safely at the end of their shifts. No one, anywhere in the world, should have to risk his or her life to earn a living. Nowhere should the job that supports your family, also devastate your family by taking a spouse, parent, child or sibling.

I extend my deepest condolences to everyone who lost someone they loved in this shocking, horrific explosion. And I continue to pray for the safe rescue of those who remain trapped and fighting for their lives. At the Labor Department, we have reached out to officials in Turkey, and we stand ready to provide assistance in any way we can.

But if Secretary Perez really wants to ensure that all workers return home safely at the end of their shifts, why doesn’t he get his administration moving to finalize MSHA’s proximity device rule for coal mines right here in the United States?

APTOPIX Mine ExplosionIf you don’t notice similarities between the Turkish mine disaster and some incidents in the not-too-distance past in this country, you’re not paying attention. For example, it was a relatively simple electrical problem — a roof fall that damaged a battery charging station — that led to a series of explosions that killed 13 miners at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Ala.  Remember that  conditions in Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 and Upper Big Branch mines certainly didn’t reflect modern safety practices when a fire and an explosion at those mines killed a total of 31 miners in 2006 and 2010 in West Virginia. And certainly, a long line of reports, studies and oversight hearings makes it clear that federal mine safety regulators in the United States still have a long way to go.

In my post yesterday, I guess I hinted around at this. But there’s a clear danger here for worker safety efforts in the United States. We shouldn’t spend too much time feeling superior to our brothers and sisters in Turkey. If the goal of the U.S. coal-mining industry really is — as CONSOL energy executives have said time and again it is — to have zero deaths and injuries,  then we need to use the Turkish disaster not just as an opportunity to try to spread what we’ve learned — but also as a chance to look inward. I get it that the sights and sounds of the Turkish disaster challenge our senses, that the death toll numbers are hard to imagine, let alone understand. The data clearly shows that the U.S. coal industry has put disasters of this magnitude behind it. Let’s hope it stays that way. But is the pain of someone who lost a husband or a brother or a son or a friend in a mine explosion any less because only 28 others perished in the same blast, instead of 280 others?

Instead of just being glad we didn’t blow up 200 coal miners today, why not spend that time and effort asking why we buried two coal miners alive Monday night in West Virginia?

Turkey Mining Accident

Family members weep during the burial of a mine accident victim in Soma, Turkey, Thursday, May 15, 2014. An explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, killed hundreds of workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history.(AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

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