Siberian mine explosion kills more than 50, another tragedy in an industry plagued with safety lapses

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 and had no memory of what had happened, doctors told journalists Friday.

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

In video aired by the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, the weeping widow of one of the dead miners, Boris Piyalkin, said alarms on methane detectors that miners are required to wear were ignored. Her name was not given.

She said a fire broke out in the mine last week, a complaint that other miners have made to local media.

On Nov. 15, the miners “didn’t hesitate and extinguished the fire in the mine themselves, by their own efforts. A few days went by, and now my husband is gone. And everyone knew it,” she told local media, wiping away tears.

Recent safety checks by authorities achieved nothing, she said. Her husband and others had to keep working, even as methane detectors warned of high gas levels.

“What did they check? That methane had been going off the scale there for a long time. My husband had a gauge here,” she said patting her breast, adding that it kept beeping.

“He said, ‘The sensor is beeping. I’ll wet it with water so it doesn’t beep.’ And then they worked. That’s the conditions in which they worked,” she said.

The Listvyazhnaya coal mine in Belovo in southwestern Siberia, which started operating in 1956, had been through a period of strife over the past 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 had earlier said that 52 people were killed, including six rescuers.

Russian authorities have launched a criminal case against the mine director, his deputy and the 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 closing 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 Listvyazhnaya 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 Labor Ministry 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. Kemerovo prosecutors who carried out inspections of 25 other mines in the region Friday said they found dozens of violations, including breaches of rules on safety and worker protections. They opened a criminal case and 55 administrative cases over violations.

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, that killed 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.

Climate change has increased pressure for countries to quit coal, and more than 40 nations 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 industry’s 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 Energy Ministry 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 Listvyazhnaya 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 20 mines producing 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 Listvyazhnaya 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.

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 operating.

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