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11 May, 2010 18:20

Putin demands changes in coal mining industry following accident

The double mine blast in Siberia has now claimed the lives of 60 miners and rescue workers. Chances of finding the remaining 30 people trapped underground alive are fading.

Authorities insist they are still conducting a rescue and not recovery operation.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has arrived in the region, has met with some of the injured miners and relatives of the dead and has assessed the ongoing rescue effort.

He has demanded a detailed investigation and system-wide changes that would prevent similar accidents in the future.

Specifically, Putin wanted to know “how the mining instructions were followed, what the state of the control equipment was, what measures were taken to boost safety, what the technical state of the individual rescue equipment was, and how the rescue operations were organized.”

Putin’s main concerns centered on the fact that several miners who had barely managed to escape from the first blast were not evacuated immediately and died in the second explosion a few hours later.

The situation at the mine remains extremely dangerous. It has been decided to let more air into the mine, which will increase the risk of another blast. But Russia’s Emergencies Minister Sergey Shoigu says there is no other choice.

“We have 24 hours until the methane gas concentration reaches a critical level,” Shoigu said. “We have to switch on the ventilation. Right now, the situation is precarious. The gas may or may not explode. But if we don't switch on the ventilation tomorrow, it will go off and the explosion will be very powerful.”

Raspadskaya Coal Company, which owns the mine says they spend millions of dollars on safety every year and inspect equipment regularly.

Workers’ safety, however, is something that many miners now dispute, saying that the pressure to produce coal to maintain their salaries is putting their safety on the back seat.

When I was the head of miners' labour union, miners would come to me and say that, in order to produce more coal and get decent money, they had to violate safety regulations,” former head of the Independent Miners’ Union said. “This was how they met the targets.”

Anatoly Dzhigrin, director of the Skochinsky Mining Institute, echoed this concern, saying the deadly accident could be attributed to bad production practices both on the organizers’ and workers’ part.

Raspadskaya mine is modern with very good equipment. Unfortunately, the statistic says most of the accidents happen due to human error or organizational flaws. Now, up to 80% of them are caused by this human factor,” he said.

Workers are interested in mining more because of the wage structure. The minimum salary is too low, while output bonuses are high. Trade unions are constantly calling for a change to this. Miners should be paid well for their hard labor and not put into a situation where they are prompted to violate regulations,” Dzhigrin added.

Meanwhile, five of the dead mineworkers were laid to rest on Tuesday. The 94 people injured in the blasts were hospitalized, and several of them remain in critical condition. Hopes of finding anyone alive diminish by the minute.

The tragedy seems to have shaken the entire community of the town of Mezhdurechensk.

It’s a small town and everyone is affected by this tragedy,” Galina Sidilina, resident of the town. “We didn’t expect anything to happen at this mine, it was new. It was known as a safe one.”