On 29 April 2014, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP Party), which is led by Prime Minister RecepTayyipErdogan, rejected a call from the Republican People’s Party to establish a commission to look into the high frequency of explosions in the Soma mining region. It was an issue that had been raised frequently in parliament between October 2013 and April 2014, with the opposition voicing concerns over the safety of working conditions in the mines.
Each time the issue was raised, the government explained that it had inspected the mines ten times and had issued fines for safety breaches. It identified the Soma mines as being the safest in the country but admitted that fatal incidents were sadly the "nature of the profession".
That was clear two weeks later, when the worst mining disaster in modern history occurred at Soma. On 13 May, an explosion started an underground mine fire that would burn for two days and take the lives of 301 trapped miners. The day after, Erdogan expressed mournful tones, but not before putting things in the context of a dangerous industry: "Unfortunately these kind of mining accidents inevitably take place everywhere in the world. However, the enormity of this accident has hurt us deeply." That same day, an investigation into the accident was launched.
An unfortunate event
In its initial statement following the disaster, Soma Mining, claimed that all was well until just before the explosion: "Unfortunately, an inexplicable fire that has never been witnessed before took place in our enterprises. The reasons behind the fact that the fire spread faster than normal conditions, despite all safety measures taken, will be clear after a detailed investigation."
While the final death toll of 301 surpassed all other tragic incidents in Turkey’s potted mining history, a 2008 report by the Turkish Economy Policies Research Foundation identified the country as having the highest death rate per million tonnes of coal mined in the world; things could have been much worse. At the time the explosion struck, there were more than 800 miners underground, who were later rescued to safety.
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Speaking to the Andalou Agency, TevfikCucu, a shift supervisor at the mine, said: "Around five to ten minutes after the technician went to check, we were told to gather everyone and go to ‘the breath’ [an area where miners are able to breathe fresh air]. We called everyone together and moved to get out. We were 3km or 4km’s away from the entrance and at 1km’s distance from the fresh air zone."
"Smoke was everywhere. We put on our masks. People couldn’t see each other as they walked. The smoke was diminishing us. We start out with 25-30 people; when we reached ‘the breath’ there was only an unconscious friend beside me," Cucu explained. He went on to reveal that the smoke was so thick and disorientating that some removed their gas masks.
Outdated safety kit
While some may have removed their gas masks, it was reported that the masks themselves were not fit for purpose. It was revealed that miners at Soma had been supplied with 15-year-old Chinese gas masks that operated for 45 minutes, compared with modern masks that enable the wearer to breathe for a full two hours. The inadequacy of the supplied breathing apparatuses was one of many criticisms levelled at Soma Mining following the disaster.
In the wake of the fire, the company has faced a series of allegations over its inspection procedures. In one case, it is accused of forging official records to cover up incidents where carbon monoxide levels rose dangerously high. During the investigation into the accident, analysis of sensor data from inside the mine found that while levels had risen above acceptable levels, there was no record.
"The data collected from sensors were forged as they were recorded in the record books. So, in the background of this disaster, we are seeing a crime of forgery," said SelçukKozagaçli, head of the progressive lawyers association, and one of the team investigating the disaster. Since the disaster, a total of eightSoma Mining employees have been arrested on charges of manslaughter. Among the men facing trial are Can Gurkan, chief executive of the company, and general manager RamazanDogru.
While the fate of those arrested is yet to be decided and the full explanation of what caused the disaster is yet to be finalised, the debate over how to best ensure that a repeat of Soma does not happen is in full swing. Dr KannErarslan, a mining and engineering professor at DumlupinarUniversity in Turkey, argued that a major part of the issue was that private companies were putting profits ahead of the safety of workers.
He said: "The Soma coal company and all others should not think the workers are consumption or supply material of the process." Erarslan claimed that while the country had established Occupational Health & Safety Laws comparable with the European Union, implementation of them had been slow.
Profit over protection
The case for privatisation having compromised safety at Soma is strengthened by the fact that under the control of Soma Mining, the cost of producing a tonne of coal dropped from $130 to$140, to just below $24. Speaking on a condition of anonymity to the Christian Science Monitor, a miner who had worked at the site until just before the disaster, said: "When the government was running the pit there was less production, and when it was privatized the production went up, but the investment did not."
On the legislative and regulatory front, the government has certainly increased attention on the sector and Soma Mining in particular. In addition to the arrest of eight of its workers, the company has also seen a number of its other sites shut down after labour inspectors found health and safety breaches. The inspectors brought operations in Isiklar, Eynez and Atabacasi to a halt over safety deficiencies and said they would not reopen until the issues had been addressed.
The government has also announced that it will issue a sector-wide directive that will make it compulsory for mines to feature an underground refuge chamber where workers can seek shelter inemergencies. It has been argued that if a $250,000 chamber had been present in the Soma mine, trapped workers might have been able to survive long enough to be rescued, but that operators’ unwillingness to spend the money had led to one not being built. The opposition Republican People’s Party had originally called for it to be made law that all mines have such a chamber, but, the ruling party stopped short, instead opting to simply make it an industrial directive.
The 301 lives lost at Soma may well leave a legacy of improved safety in the Turkish mining sector and better workers’ rights – the working day has already been reduced from eight to six hours. However, the fact that warnings were not heeded weeks before they went down will blacken it.