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Turkish mine ‘cleared’ by owner’s relative 2 months prior deadly blast

Turkish mine ‘cleared’ by owner’s relative 2 months prior deadly blast
The Soma coal mine, where 301 workers were killed in a disaster on May 13, received a ‘perfect’ score in March from an official inspector, whose brother-in-law happened to be a senior executive at the company that owned the mine, Turkish media reveal.

According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, the chief inspector of the Ministry for Labor and Social Security, Emin Gumus, inspected the mine in the western Turkish province of Manisa.

The inspection took place on four separate days, from March 13 until March 18. He noted that of the 2,948 people working in the mine, only 10 were not involved in very dangerous jobs. However, he reported that “no shortcomings were found in the scheduled inspection.”

Gumus is married to the sister of Hayri Kebapcilar, who is the Project and Studies Manager of the Soma Mine. The implications of this relationship are not yet clear, but raised concerns in Turkey. Experts stressed that inspecting the electrical equipment alone should usually take more than a month, while Gumus completed his probe in just four days.

“Even if an inspector is commissioned to work in a mine where one of his relatives works, he should put aside this relationship by revealing faults,” an expert told daily Hürriyet.

Rescuers wait in front of the coal mine after a mine explosion in Soma, a district in Turkey's western province of Manisa May 16, 2014. (Reuters / Osman Orsal)

Following the disaster, Gumus was once again asked by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security to conduct an inspection into what caused the deadly accident. However, he withdrew from the task after rumors started to emerge about his relationship to the manager of the mine.

The Minister for Labor, Faruk Celik has said that those who were involved in the inspection of the Soma Mine will bear “personal responsibility” for the disaster. The Progressive Lawyers Association has filed a criminal case against several of the Soma Mine’s managers, including Kebapcilar.

On May 21, a court refused a prosecutor’s request to arrest the owner of the mine, Alp Gurkan, saying there was “no evidence showing his responsibility.” Turkish authorities held eight people, including the mine’s chief executive, Cal Gurkan, who is Alp Gurkan’s son, it’s general manager, Ramazan Dogru, and six others pending formal charges.

"We want the mining affairs directorate inspectors to carry out inspections and we will walk out until this has been done," Tamer Kucukgencay, regional head of the Maden-Is labor union, told reporters.

Turkey’s Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters in parliament that production had been halted at Soma Mining facilities until additional safety measures were taken. Last week, he also stated that the introduction of extra safety measures for miners would be discussed during a parliamentary session.

The Turkish government is under pressure to improve the country’s safety record. The incident at the Soma Mine was the worst in the country’s history, surpassing the death toll of a firedamp explosion that killed 263 miners in the Black Sea mining town of Zonguldak in 1992.

Widespread demonstrations followed the Soma Mine disaster, with protesters blaming the owners, who took charge of the mine after privatization, of neglecting the lives of their employees to reduce costs. Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the picketers and seemed to only inflame what was an already volatile situation.

Riot police beat protesters during a demonstration to blame the ruling AK Party (AKP) government on mining disaster in western Turkey, in Izmir May 15, 2014. (Reuters / Can Mehmethanoglu / KODA Collective)

An initial report on the possible causes of the accident, cited by prosecutor Bekir Sahiner, indicated that the fire may have been triggered by coal heating up after making contact with the air, sending deadly carbon monoxide through the mine.

According to the prosecutor's dossier on the investigation, cited by the Radikal newspaper, it was not until 57 minutes after the fire broke out that the fire brigade was notified and another six minutes before ambulance services were contacted.

Radikal also added that gas masks used by the miners were effective for only 45 minutes.