Deadly Siberian explosion is latest mining industry tragedy – The Washington Post

By Robyn Dixon,

MOSCOW — One rescuer was pulled alive from a Siberian coal mine Friday after an explosion that killed 51 coal miners and rescuers the previous day.

The man found alive, Alexander Zakovryashin, 51, was a doctor on a rescue team sent into the mine Thursday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported. He was in serious condition, doctors told journalists Friday. 

Thursday’s rescue effort in the mine had to be suspended because of high levels of explosive methane gas.

The Listvazhnaya coal mine in Belovo in southwestern Siberia, which started operating in 1956, had been through a period of strife over the last year. It was inspected by multiple agencies for safety and fire violations, forced to shut down nine times and fined more than $55,000, the Tass news agency reported.

Five rescuers and 46 miners were killed in the blast Thursday, Kemerovo governor Sergei Tsivilyov said. Authorities earlier said that 52 people were killed including six rescuers.

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Russian authorities have launched a criminal case against the mine director, his deputy and foreman over suspected negligence and breach of safety procedures.

Andrey Vil, a spokesman for Rostekhnadzor, the country’s technology and ecology watchdog, said the organization found more than 900 violations of regulations in the course of 127 inspections at the mine this year, according to Tass.

The blast underscored the difficulties Russia has faced in imposing modern safety standards in a dangerous sector in which fatal blasts have been common and are often blamed on lax safety standards or outmoded equipment.

In 2016, Russian authorities weighed the closure of 20 dangerous coal mines but ruled it out because of cost and the risk of coal shortages.

Authorities said the blast was caused by a methane explosion early Thursday when 285 miners were underground. The explosions cut communications with some of the trapped miners.

A total of 239 have been rescued. As the hours ticked away, hopes began to fade for the safety of the remaining workers. Interfax cited one source at the scene estimating that miners’ oxygen would have run out by early Friday afternoon.

The most recent inspection at the Listvazhnaya coal mine took place Wednesday, but it involved surface facilities unrelated to the accident, Tass reported. In one April inspection at the mine, Rostekhnadzor found 139 violations of regulations, including breaches of fire safety rules, the agency reported.

Several other agencies, including the Department of Labor and the Ministry of Emergency Services, had also inspected the mine, local media reported.

Tsivilyov, the governor, ordered a safety inspection of all other coal mines in the region.

Thursday’s catastrophe recalled other coal mining disasters with high casualties: In 2010, the Raspadskaya mine in the Kemerovo region was hit by two blasts, believed caused by a methane gas buildup, killing 91 people.

Three years earlier, a Russian coal mine blast killed at least 108 men. In February 2016, a series of explosions at a coal mine in the Komi republic of northern Russia killed 36 miners and rescuers, prompting an investigation across all mines.

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Climate change has increased pressure for countries to quit coal, and more than 40 countries pledged to end their coal-fired power at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month. The United States, China, India and Russia did not sign the pledge.

More valuable metallurgical coal, or coking coal, is used in steelmaking, while thermal coal is used to make steam that generates electricity.

Both metallurgical coal and thermal coal are mined in Siberia‘s Kuzbass coal basin, which has one of the world’s largest deposits of high-quality coal. High levels of methane gas and coal dust, both highly inflammable, make mines hazardous.

Russian authorities have tried to improve the record by carrying out inspections of mines and updating safety regulations. Yet underlying these measures is a tacit acceptance that underground coal mining is a dangerous but profitable business, hence the government’s rejection of closures of dangerous mines in 2016.

After a review of the country’s 58 coal mines in 2016 following the Komi blast, the Ministry of Energy weighed whether to shut down the 20 most dangerous mines or to force companies to upgrade. It determined that they should be upgraded at a cost of around $320 million.

The Listvazhnaya mine was not on the list of the 20 most dangerous coal mines.

Deputy Energy Minister Anatoly Yanovsky reported at the time that shutting down the 20 dangerous mines that produce 105 million tons of coal annually would be expensive and could lead to a coal shortage.

Yanovsky’s report said that modernizing mines would leave five that were dangerous, the Vedomosti newspaper reported at the time.

The Listvazhnaya mine, owned by the Kemerovo-based SDS-Ugol company, suffered previous deadly accidents in 2004, when 13 people were killed, and in 1981, when five died. Another accident five years ago killed one person, Russian media reported.

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Thursday’s explosion occurred shortly after 8 a.m. as the night shift finished and the morning shift was beginning, a miner told local Siberian media, declining to give his name. He claimed that ventilation of methane gas in the mine was inadequate.

“Every time, you think about what will happen if you run out of oxygen. You will go down, and it will end,” the miner told “I say this and laugh now. Do you know why? Because do you know how scary it really is?” He said there were few other well-paid jobs available in the region.

Under Russian safety rules, mines are supposed to stop work if methane concentrations get too high, but miners, declining to be named, told local media that work at the mine often continued. According to regulations, miners must be equipped with methane detectors, and mines must have effective ventilators and at least two exits.

But miners are not paid when they have to stop because of high methane levels, local media reported.

Another local media outlet, Sibermedia, reported that a miner identified only as Alexander claimed he had heard from colleagues about a fire in the mine two days before the blast but that the mine kept working.

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