Relatives of Russian mineworkers killed in a series of explosions at the Severnaya mine in Vorkuta, north of the Arctic circle, are demanding legal action against managers who repeatedly violated safety procedures.
Four miners died on Thursday 25 February as a result of two underground explosions of methane gas. Twenty-six more men were trapped underground: on Sunday 28 February,
media reported that hope of finding them alive had faded. Also on Sunday, five rescue workers and a miner were killed in a further explosion.
By midday Sunday 300 people had signed a petition launched by the victims’ relatives to Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of Russia’s state investigation committee, demanding that mine managers be prosecuted.
“The [first] explosion came as no surprise: the detectors had for a long time shown an excess of methane”, the petition states. “Work should not have continued at the time. This is a crude breach of safety procedures. Management knew this, but continued to allow people underground.”
On Thursday, workers on the surface believed there had been a movement of rock strata underground. On Friday the press service of the Vorkutaugol company, which owns the mine – a subsidiary of world-leading steel producer Severstal – confirmed that, in addition, methane mixed with coal dust had exploded.
Mineworkers’ relatives made direct, detailed accusations that management had flouted safety standards.
Darya Tryasukho, whose father Vyacheslav was trapped underground, wrote on social media that warnings of danger had been made 22 days before the disaster. Management had been aware of the build-up of methane above 2%, but had not stopped work, as regulations require.
“For the last two days my father came home and said that the levels of stable gas and methane were 2% (at the meeting [of relatives who gathered after the disaster], all the wives,
mothers and relatives confirmed that their men had come home and said that there was danger). But the bosses and management closed their eyes to it.
“As one of the [mine] workers said, I quote: ‘You [the company] fine us if we work without safety glasses, through which you can’t see a thing – sack people … but when the alarm sounds and people point to the [methane] detectors, you allow people underground’.”
Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading opposition newspaper, published photographs of methane detectors, taken by miners underground at Severnaya on 11 February, showing how methane levels doubled to 2.55% in the space of 15 minutes.
Safety procedures require that at such levels of gas build-up, electricity be shut down, the mine sections be shut down and action taken to reduce the methane build-up. But as Darya Tryasukho told Novaya Gazeta in an interview: “Work at Severnaya did not stop. And when methane concentrations reach 5% you are bound to get an explosion. And if it is mixed with coal dust, and there are shifting rocks, 2% may be enough.”
Both Vorkutaugol and its parent company Severstal say that there have recently been substantial investments in safety in the Vorkuta mines, Novaya Gazeta reported. But trade union officials and local politicians see it differently.
Aleksandr Sergeev, head of the independent miners union of Russia, confirmed that there had been safety breaches at Severnaya and that employees had complained about them, Novaya Gazeta reported.
Valentin Kopasov, a deputy to the local council, in the summer of 2015 published an open letter to the main owner of Severstal, billionaire oligarch Aleksei Mordashov, protesting against the introduction of eight-hour shifts at the Vorgashorskaya mine near to Severnaya. Previously shifts were six hours long.
Some miners work two shifts in a row in order to increase their earnings, Kopasov pointed out.
In 2013, 19 miners died in an explosion at Vorkutinskaya, another of the company’s mines.
The Vorkutaugol mine complex was opened in 1933: the mines were sunk with the forced labour of prisoners in the Stalinist gulag. Its 2015 output was 7.8 million tonnes. Most of this is coking coal, which goes to steelmaking plants owned by its parent company, Severstal, which is listed on the London stock exchange and has a market capitalisation of around $7 billion.
Breaches of safety standards, and management negligence, have caused fatal accidents in the Russian coalfields many times before.
■ After one of Russia’s worst mining accidents in recent years, in May 2010 at the Raspadskaya mine at Mezhdurechensk, Siberia, where 91 men died, inspectors’ reports found that safety equipment had been tampered with. It was reported that mine managers had turned a blind eye to workers – who rely on productivity payments to make a living wage – disabling gauges that automatically shut down the power supply to drilling equipment if gas concentrations exceed a certain level. The mine, which reopened in January 2015 – is controlled by Evraz steel. Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club, is a major shareholder.
■ In 2007, when 110 died at the Ulyanovskaya mine in western Siberia, it emerged that safety equipment had been tampered with there, too.
■ Reports of a fatal explosion in March last year at the Zasyadko mine in the Donetsk region in Ukraine, in separatist-controlled territory, raised issues of a poor safety culture.
The common theme is that this type of accident is made more likely by institutional collusion in disregarding safety standards.
Members of the National Union of Mineworkers in the UK, who have over many years formed links with Russian mining trades unionists, have often expressed dismay at poor safety standards in Russian pits. Basic procedures – such as the use of water curtains and stone-dust barriers to minimise the deadly danger of methane mixing with coal dust – are often disregarded.
In an interview with the Durham Mechanic magazine, produced by members of the mechanics’ section of the union, in 2010, Tony Wilson – an NUM member who was working in Russia as a contractor – described his shock at “the lack of basic precautions that had been legally required in British mines for more than 60 years”. Read Tony’s interview here – thanks to the Durham mechanics for allowing me to reproduce it.
Worker and community organisation is the best way to ensure safety standards. All power to the mineworkers’ families in Vorkuta, to achieve justice for the victims. GL, 29 February 2016.