On May 13, hundreds of miners were trapped nearly a mile underground after an explosion and fire cut off electricity to the depths of a coal mine in Soma, Turkey. The resulting disaster has now become the worst in Turkish history, claiming the lives of 301 workers with nearly another 500 escaping or being rescued. In the aftermath of the chaotic episode, there are no shortage of outspoken employees of the Eynez coal mine raising concerns about the safety measures taken by the Soma Coal Mining Company as well as the insufficiency of government inspections. What there is a shortage of is accountability for the tragedy.
“Work safety? There is no work safety. They cut corners wherever they can,” Veli Yilmaz, a coalminer in Soma for nine years, told the Guardian. “The foremen receive a bonus if we produce more coal than planned. So all they worry about is working faster and extracting more coal.”
Yilmaz, who asked his name to be changed for the article, told the Guardian that inspections are planned weeks in advance.
“We always prepared for these visits, cleaning everything, temporarily closing dangerous shafts, hiding faulty machines,” he said. “In our mine, we are not allowed to use diesel-fueled machinery. These machines were hidden away for the inspections. We were also instructed to tell them that everything was just fine, that we were happy.”
CREDIT: AP/ Lefteris Pitarakis
Coal has helped drive Turkey’s fast-paced development over the last decade since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came into power in 2002. After the disaster, Erdoğan cancelled an overseas trip to visit Soma and made assurances that there would be a full investigation.
Turkey has limited oil and gas reserves — though it is an imported transit hub for supplies from Russia — but large coal reserves. Turkey’s electricity demand grew by more than 90 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Even with a government-backed coal industry, Turkey imported almost a quarter of its coal in 2012. The country also imported significant amounts of oil and gas to meet rising demand, with around 46 percent of energy demand currently met by natural gas.
“There is a symbiotic relationship between the AKP and coal, but the cozy ties have actually made the mines less safe and regulations weaker,” Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat now chairman of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul-based think tank, told the Wall Street Journal. “Now, we see a risk that the government will place all the blame on the mine’s corporate managers and absolve itself of any responsibility in this tragedy.”
This week, five company officials have been arrested in connection with the accident on charges of causing death by negligence. These include Soma Coal Mining Company operating manager Akin Çelik, engineers Yalcin Erdogan and Ertan Ersoy, and security chief Yasin Kurnaz.
Çelik said at a press conference that “there was no negligence on our side. I have worked in mines for 20 years, and I did not witness such an incident.”
When Erdoğan visited the mine he said that “Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world.”
Just last week, two miners were killed during coal outburst in a West Virginia coal mine that had been put on notice for a pattern of violations of health and safety standards. According to Tepav, a Turkish research center, the number of annual deaths per tons of coal produced is vastly higher in Turkey than in the U.S., and it is even higher than in China. The International Labour Organization ranked Turkey third-worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012 and worst among European countries. According to ILO, over 1,000 lost their lives in Turkish mines between 2002 and 2012.
CREDIT: AP/Burhan Ozbilici
Many of the miners suffocated from the thick smoke generated by the fires, as some of them found themselves without gas masks.
Miner Erdal Bicak told the Associated Press that company negligence is responsible for the disaster and that workers weren’t warned in time of high methane levels. He also said that government safety inspectors never visited the lower reaches of the Soma mine, where conditions are the worst.
Miner Ahmet Yankın, the brother of Nurhan Yankın, 42, who died in the accident after returning to mining work to help pay his mortgage, offered one of the more emotional accounts. Yankin was also in the mine, but was rescued just in time. “In the ambulance, they were saying I was about to die”:
My brother was closer to the exit but the smoke covered the area where he was more rapidly. I found out that he had died after being released from the hospital. Later we went to the cold-air depot in Kırkağaç to retrieve his body. I looked at 165 bodies to identify him. I lost control when I saw the bodies of my friends. It was very painful. I could only identify my brother after getting a grip on myself.
The World Bank recently announced a credit line of $350 million to support the finance of renewable energy projects in Turkey, where about 7 percent of energy demand is currently met with renewable sources.
“Turkey has considerable renewable energy potential. However, substantial public and private investment is needed to fully exploit this resource,” said Martin Raiser, World Bank country director for Turkey. “We have supported Turkey’s energy sector reforms for over a decade with the objective of making Turkey’s energy sector cleaner, more secure and less dependent on imports. This project is another important step in this direction.”
Renewable sources of energy would not only be much safer for the workforce, but also would save Turkey money on importing fossil fuels. The country has already set a renewable energy goal of 30 percent of total demand by 2023. A goal that could be met primarily with wind power.