A blast in a Turkish coal mine claims more than 200 lives


The disaster highlighted Turkey’s poor record on worker safety and drew renewed opposition calls for an inquiry into a drop in safety standards at previously state-run mines.

Turkey, Coal Mine,
Miners are helped by rescue workers and friends from the coal mine on May 14, 2014 in Manisa, Turkey. (Ozgu Ozdemir/AFP/Getty Images)

Rescuers pulled more dead and injured from a coal mine in western Turkey on Wednesday more than 19 hours after an explosion, bringing the death toll to 205 in what could become the nation’s worst ever mining disaster.

Hundreds more were still believed to be trapped in the mine in Soma, about 480 kilometers (298 miles) southwest of Istanbul. The explosion, which triggered a fire, occurred shortly after 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) on Tuesday.

“We are heading towards this accident likely being the deadliest ever in Turkey,” Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters at the scene.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan declared three days of national mourning.

Yildiz said the fire was still burning underground, which miners said was hampering the rescue operation and denting hopes of finding more survivors. A pall of smoke hung above the area.

The blast happened during a shift change, leading to uncertainty over the exact numbers of miners trapped inside. Yildiz earlier said 787 workers were in the mine at the time and that the death toll may rise further.

“I have to say that our hopes are dimming in terms of the rescue efforts,” he said.

Rescue workers pumped oxygen into the mine to try to keep those trapped by the blaze alive, as thousands of family members and co-workers gathered outside the town’s hospital. Many of the dead had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, Yildiz said.

The disaster highlighted Turkey’s poor record on worker safety and drew renewed opposition calls for an inquiry into a drop in safety standards at previously state-run mines. The International Labor Organization ranked the EU candidate nation third worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012.

Coal mining is responsible for more fatalities than the production of any other energy source due to poor working conditions in producing countries such as China, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia and Colombia. It is also a major world polluter.

A coal mine collapse in the US state of West Virginia killed two workers this week at a facility that had “chronic compliance issues” and received numerous citations from inspectors last year.

Last month, two more workers were killed in Australia after a supporting wall in a coal mine about 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of Sydney gave way, trapping the two men about 500 meters (1,640 feet) below the surface.

This deadly record is putting pressure on utilities from shareholders to source their coal in a more ethical and environmentally friendly way to save thousands of miners and reduce pollution.

Despite its poor record, coal accounts for over 40 percent of global electricity generation as coal-fired power stations are relatively cheap to build and operate.

Shareholder pressure

Under scrutiny from major shareholders including Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, some energy companies have begun to take action, clubbing together to form the Bettercoal group to improve their ethical, social and environmental standards.

“There is increasing awareness of coal’s destruction… and also understanding that alternatives are possible,” said Ailun Yang, senior associate at the US World Resources Institute.

The coal mining sector’s dismal fatality record since 1970 compares with 20,000 deaths in the oil sector and around 1,500 in natural gas, according to estimates from the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), a Swiss natural and engineering sciences institute.

Other estimates are much higher with Hazardex, a specialist in safety information, saying that China’s death toll alone is over 1,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said last month that air pollution, partly caused by burning coal, killed 7 million people worldwide in 2012, making it the world’s single biggest environmental health risk, and the WHO recommended “the movement away from dirtier fuels, such as coal.”

Coal use still rising

Despite international efforts to shift to cleaner and safer fuels, coal’s share of energy generation is still increasing and global carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high last year.

Driven by rising use in emerging economies, coal could even surpass oil as the main fuel for theglobal economy by 2020, energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie said.

This highlights the need to take urgent action to improve environmental standards, experts say.

In the West, a revolution in shale gas technology in the United States has triggered a switch from coal to cleaner natural gas, but it has also resulted in cheap coal exports to Europe where its share of the power generation mix has risen despite efforts to use more renewable power sources.

Chinese efforts to reduce its pollution from coal, range from pushing its natural gas, renewable and nuclear power generation sectors as well as introducing particle filters and reducing the amount of high sulphur and low quality coal imports especially from Indonesia.


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