Several mining executives have been convicted for their role in the Soma mining disaster in Turkey in May 2014, which claimed the lives of 301 people making it the 19th-worst mining accident in world history.

The mine was operated by the Turkish Government until it was leased to private company Soma Holding in 2005; while the company is owned by a government conglomerate, Turkish Coal Enterprises, many of the individuals to be sentenced have been members of Soma Holding. A court in the town of Akhisar sentenced Soma Holding CEO Can Gurkan to 15 years, Soma mine manager Ramazan Dogru to 22 years, and the mine’s operations director Akin Celik to 18 and a half years.

“The necessary criminal and administrative investigations will be carried out and we will be strictly following them,” said current Turkish president, and prime minister during the disaster, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “No one would be able to cover up this painful incident.”

The Turkish Government concluded that a power distribution unit at the mine exploded and caused a fire, which spread around coal dumped around a transformer. The fire then spread when it met fresh air from an inlet and set alight bands, pipes and timber supports across two of the mine’s corridors. The fire produced significant volumes of poisonous carbon monoxide, which was ultimately identified as the main cause of death during the accident.

Since taking control, Soma Holding had aimed to reduce operating costs at the mine. While this this initiative was successful, lowering the cost of producing coal from $140 per tonne to less than $24, safety standards were compromised. State-run newspaper Anadolu Agency called the mine ‘one of the safest in Turkey’ prior to Soma Holding’s involvement, but the disaster killed almost half of the 780 workers underground at the time of the accident as the poisonous gas spread much faster than the fire through the mine.

The close relationship between the government and Soma Holding may have contributed to the scale of the disaster; inspection reports found coal had been smouldering for days in the mine before the accident, and two weeks prior to the disaster the opposition party called for an investigation into safety at the mine, which was rejected by the governing party.

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A report into safety at the mine following the disaster found the operation to be lacking in carbon monoxide detectors, have poorly-maintained gas masks and not be properly ventilated. This has contributed to a sense of outrage amongst families of the victims, who believe government inaction, and Soma Holding being allowed to pursue profits at the expense of safety, to have been key factors in the disaster. Some of the families of the victims held protests outside the courtroom following the sentencing.

Mining Technology’s Mining Safety content is supported by USA mining safety specialists Carroll Technologies Group.