Past Disasters Haunt Modern-Day Coal Mining Accidents

May 15, 2014
Originally published on May 15, 2014 9:55 am
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A mine disaster in Turkey that's left at least 280 miners dead and scores still missing in the mine has sparked protests there. Now labor unions are calling for a one day national strike to protest working conditions in the Soma mine.

NPR's Howard Berkes looks at this latest tragedy in a very dangerous industry.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: The deadliest place for miners is China, with more than a thousand killed in accidents each year. Turkey has about a hundred mining fatalities a year, so the casualty count at the coal mine outside Soma raises a fundamental question: How could so many die there in a single accident? Tom Hethmon is a professor of mine safety at the University of Utah.

TOM HETHMON: It starts first with having a relatively large workforce underground, and that can happen either because the mine lacks mechanization and requires a fair amount of human labor, or it's just a very large operation requiring a large number of people.

BERKES: Both appear to be true in Turkey, according to what some miners told reporters. Hundreds worked underground, and some sections of the mine didn't have mining machines, so more workers were needed for the digging. There's also the fact the explosion rocked the mine during a change in shifts. If mining machines don't stop between shifts, the shift change occurs underground, and that's dangerous, says Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief.

DAVITT MCATEER: It enhances productivity by keeping the productivity operational, but what it does is double the number of people that are at risk.

BERKES: Close to a third of the world's energy comes from coal, so the risk is everywhere, as miners work to meet the demand. Methane gas in coal seams is explosive, so is coal dust. And there are all kinds of ignition sources underground, like the power distribution box that triggered the explosion in Turkey.

For about a hundred years, around the world, we've done a thing where we encase an explosion source by a metal box that keeps the explosion from entering the atmosphere of the mine.

An ignition fueled by methane gas and coal dust can turn into a massive explosion. Survivors might then be overcome by volatile gases, especially if escape routes are blocked. At the Turkish mine, the explosion cut power, so elevators couldn't carry survivors to the surface. In the United States and elsewhere, mines are required to have alternate escape routes. They're also required to control methane gas and coal dust. Government mine inspectors check for compliance. But in Turkey, the rules appear to be lax. The Soma mine had five inspections in the last two years. Davitt McAteer.

MCATEER: If you compared it to a mine of this size and similar conditions in the United States, you would end up with somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-plus inspections at that mine.

BERKES: But even in the United States, with tougher rules and more inspections, coal miners continue to die. Twenty-nine perished in a single explosion in West Virginia four years ago. McAteer says a common theme in accidents everywhere is companies putting production before safety and regulators unable or unwilling to stop them.

Howard Berkes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.