Russia urged on safety laws after mine tragedy

13/05/2010 | Simon Pirani

Trade union leaders called for tougher safety legislation as the death toll from two explosions at Russia’s largest coal mine, Raspadskaya in western Siberia, reached 66 on Thursday

Trade union leaders called for tougher safety legislation as the death toll from two explosions at Russia’s largest coal mine, Raspadskaya in western Siberia, reached 66 yesterday.

The search for 24 men still missing was suspended because of fears of new underground blasts. The disaster has wiped nearly $1 billion off Raspadskaya’s market value.

The first blast rocked the mine, at Mezhdurechensk in the Kuzbass coal basin, late on Saturday 10 May. Rescue workers entered the pit and a second blast killed many of them, along with mineworkers trying to reach their trapped workmates.

Russian emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu, who visited the scene with prime minister Vladimir Putin, told reporters at the scene on Wednesday that there was probably only a day left to free the remaining men underground, where methane gas levels were three times above the maximum level considered safe.

Ivan Mokhnachuk, president of Rosugleprof, the largest Russian miners’ union, told Emerging Markets that, while rescue efforts continued, no investigation had begun into the causes of the accident.

He said that after the explosions at the Ulyanovskaya and Yubileinaya mines in 2007, which killed 110 and 39 miners respectively, there had been “considerable improvements” in safety procedures. At Ulyanovskaya, an investigation established that safety equipment had been tampered with.

The drive to improve safety legislation was not complete, Mokhnachuk said. It was “absolutely vital” that Russia ratified the International Labour Organization’s convention 176 on health and safety in mines, which sets down global standards. “We have raised this issue with the government several times and will do so again,” he said.

Joe Drexler of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy Mine and General Workers Unions called for “a tripartite effort by government, employers and trade unions to review current laws, regulations and practices”.

Petr Biziukov of the Centre for Social and Labour Rights, a veteran campaigner on Russian mine safety, said greater transparency was a vital precondition to reducing accidents. “I can not accurately assess safety procedures in this mine, or many others, because all too often the relevant information is declared to be a ‘commercial secret’ and is not available to trade unions or to us. Safety must not be a ‘closed’ subject.”

Gennady Kozovoi, chief executive of Raspadskaya, told journalists on Wednesday that it could be “years” before the vast mine, which has 400 kilometres of tunnels, would be fully operational again. Analysts expect the price of coking coal, which it supplies to the Magnitogorsk and Novolipetsk steelworks and other plants in the Evraz group, to rise.

On Wednesday shares in Raspadskaya fell by more than a quarter, reducing its market capitalisation from $4.25 billion to $3.36 billion. Mining sector analysts saw a substantial impact on this year’s balance sheet: a research note from Commerzbank said the EBITDA losses in 2010 could exceed $300 million if the mine remains shut until the end of the year.

Raspadskaya’s press spokesman, in Mezhdurechensk, could not be contacted.

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