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Siberian Town In Mourning Following Coal Mine Disaster

  • Anya Ardayeva

Many people in the Russian region of Kemerovo are in mourning. On Monday (March 19th), a massive methane explosion tore apart the Ulyanovskaya mine in Siberia, killing at least 108 people. Anya Ardayeva reports from Moscow.

The first funerals started to take place in the town of Novokuznetsk, some 3,000 kilometers from Moscow, for over a hundred miners who died in the mine on Monday morning. One British engineer also died.

On the day of the tragedy, the governor of Kemerovo region, Aman Tuleev, said the management went down to the mine to examine its safety systems. "Today, we were supposed to launch a British system on providing safety for mining works underground. And unfortunately, the entire management as well as representatives of the company went down to the mine to check its work."

It is still not clear what caused the massive methane gas explosion in the pit. According to the local officials, the causes for the accident will not be known for another two weeks. Ulyanovskaya, built four and a half years ago, was one of the most modern mines in Russia, updated with the newest equipment. Russian media reported that the federal industrial regulator Rostekhnadzor completed the last safety check at the mine just over a week ago and did not report any violations.

The head of Russia's Independent Working Union of Miners in Moscow, Alexander Sergeyev, says human error could be one of the reasons for the catastrophe.

According to Sergeyev, Russia urgently needs to change the payment system for miners, under which more than two-thirds of their monthly income depends on the amount of coal they produce. "When the miner is at his working place, he needs to know what he's doing. He needs to know what violations he needs to fix. If there's a lot of methane gas, he needs to wait until it goes away and should not work, and if he waits, he loses money. So there's always a dilemma on whether to risk to make money or not. We should stop mining this coal at any price. We need to change the system of payment for miners, the structure of it. I am sure we will get to it one day; I'd just wish we came to it with fewer human losses."

Some experts say the 93 survivors of the blast did not die largely because of new systems designed to minimize explosive force. Many of the Russian mines do not have that equipment, and many have not had any updates since they have gone into private hands after the collapse of the Soviet Union as their owners are trying to save money.

According to Russian media estimates, the damage to the mine will cost its owners some $200 million -- and they will lose $1 million a month while the pit is not functioning. The governor of the region already ordered the Ulyanovskaya mine to return to service by July this year.

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