38 Dead in Siberian Coal Mine Disaster

ReutersRelatives of dead miners grieving in the rain on Thursday outside the administrative office of the Yubileinaya coal mine, 45 kilometers from Novokuznetsk.
NOVOKUZNETSK, Kemerovo Region -- Thirty-eight miners died and seven were hospitalized in a methane gas explosion Thursday morning at the Yubileinaya coal mine near Novokuznetsk.

Yubileinaya, opened in 1966, is owned by Yuzhkuzbassugol. An explosion at the company's Ulyanovskaya mine in mid-March killed 110 people in the country's deadliest post-Soviet mine disaster.

There were 217 people in the Yubileinaya mine when the blast occurred at 11:40 a.m., including 23 technicians who may have been preparing for an inspection, scheduled for Friday.

After visiting the mine, Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev told reporters that methane levels in the shaft had been "normal" at the time of the explosion and gas sensors had been working properly.

"We don't know why the gas exploded. Thank God the coal dust didn't ignite as happened at Ulyanovskaya," Tuleyev said, adding that the mine had suffered little damage and that work could recommence in a month.

But a supervisor at the mine said the blast came as no surprise.

"I don't believe that the executives knew nothing about the dangerous situation at Coal Face 16, where the blast occurred. Methane was continually seeping out. We're not talking about an unexpected methane emission," said the supervisor, who declined to give his name because he feared retribution from the company.

The supervisor said sensors should have picked up any increase in the concentration of methane in the shaft. "If that didn't happen, it means the gas-control system was blocked. And that could have been done on any level, from a repairman to an engineer," he said.

"In the last few months, miners' pay has been cut nearly in half, although the company talks about increasing pay by 60 percent. People were taking risks for 17,000 to 20,000 rubles," he said.

A miner who survived also said methane had been building up for several weeks at the coal face where the blast occurred at a depth of 530 meters.

"The sensors were showing 10 percent, while the maximum concentration allowed is 2 percent," said the miner, who declined to give his name because he feared retribution from the company.

"The guys who operate the gas-detection system were told they'd be fired unless they adjusted the sensors to show 0.6 percent. Everyone knew about it and kept on working," the miner said.

"There was talk a month ago about halting operations on this face because of the high methane concentration. But digging coal was more important than saving lives," he said.

Most members of the miner's brigade died in the explosion. He survived because he was working about 100 meters away.

Another mine worker, Vitaly Bolov, said, "The shock wave sent everyone flying as if they'd been shot from a gun."

The Yubileinaya mine is not fitted with the same state-of-the-art British methane-detection system that was sabotaged before the explosion at Ulyanovskaya.

The Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Atomic Inspection twice this year presented evidence of safety violations at the mine to a local court, but on both occasions the court refused to close it down, the agency said in a statement released Thursday.

The agency's Kemerovo branch succeeded in halting work for 10 days in sections of the mine, including the coal face where Thursday's blast occurred, but when this period expired, miners returned to work.

Anatoly Kvashnin, President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Siberian Federal District, said Thursday that the agency should be given broader powers to punish coal companies that violate safety rules, including the power to close mines, Interfax reported.

Speaking at a Cabinet meeting in Moscow on Thursday, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said the government would consider canceling Yuzhkuzbassugol's business license.

"This series of accidents is not just cause for concern; it is completely unacceptable," Fradkov said.

During a meeting with senior regional officials in Novokuznetsk, Tuleyev suggested that Evraz Group, the country's top steelmaker, take full control of the mines belonging to Yuzhkuzbassugol.

"The governor proposed transferring all of the company's assets to Evraz, which presently controls 50 percent of its shares -- the remainder is held by three people -- and replacing the company's executives and management," Tuleyev's spokesman Sergei Cheremnov told Interfax.

Yuzhkuzbassugol made no comment on the disaster or Tuleyev's proposal.

Evraz Group spokesman Nikolai Kudryashov said the company was not directly involved in the management of Yuzhkuzbassugol, and would not comment on the incident until the government's report on the cause of the blast was made available.

Novokuznetsky district prosecutor's office spokesman Alexei Bugayets said his office had opened a criminal investigation into the explosion.

The Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Atomic Inspection has formed a special commission to investigate the cause of the disaster led by Andrei Malakhov, head of its Kemerovo regional office.

Yuzhkuzbassugol will pay the families of the dead miners 1 million rubles, with additional payments based on the number of children and the dead miner's seniority.

The Kemerovo region has the country's highest mortality rate among miners. Since 2001, more than 200 accidents have occurred in the region's mines, according to the Emergency Situations Ministry.

The most deadly accidents have occurred at Yuzhkuzbassugol's mines, but few convictions have followed.

Sixty-seven miners died in December 1997 in a methane explosion at the company's Zyryanovskaya mine in Novokuznetsk. The Kemerovo regional prosecutor's office investigated the blast, but closed the case after concluding that no crime had been committed.

Regional prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the Ulyanovskaya explosion. If anyone is convicted, he will face a maximum of seven years in prison.

Officials, including Tuleyev, have said the methane-detection system in the Ulyanovskaya mine was deliberately disabled to prevent it from registering high levels of the gas.

The ongoing investigation will be hampered by the fact that nearly all the mine's senior management died in the explosion, including the executive in charge of mine safety.

Five mine safety inspectors were fired over the Ulyanovskaya disaster earlier this week. Svetlana Vinokurova, a spokeswoman for the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Atomic Inspection, said Thursday that two more inspectors from the Kemerovo region had been fired for failing to prevent the blast.

Staff Writers Nabi Abdullaev and Anatoly Medetsky contributed to this report from Moscow.