The United States, which produces more than 1 billion tons of coal each year, is closely watching the mining disaster in Soma, Turkey. The May 13 explosion, which resulted in 301 deaths, is being called the worst industrial accident in Turkey’s history.
As the country struggles to deal with the tragedy, Tom Hethmon, director of the Center for Mine Safety and Health Excellence at the University of Utah, says he is waiting to see a complete report of what might have caused the explosion and fire at the mine. Hethmon visited some open coal mines in Turkey in 2009 and is a consultant for mines around the world. He spoke with VOA Turkish service's Yenal Küçükeren.
VOA: How would you assess the information that is coming from the Soma mine in Turkey? What do you think went wrong in Soma?
THOMAS HETHMON: "I haven't seen anything that I would call particularly comprehensive - and that's not surprising - given the often chaotic nature of the emergency and search and rescue efforts. I'm sure in the coming days we'll see a much more comprehensive explanation of what they think the cause of this incident was. Initially I think it was reported in the media as a transformer failure that initiated a fire and possibly an explosion - but there hasn't been an explanation from my perspective."
VOA: How long should it should take to have that explanation, the investigation and so forth? What would be the ideal timeframe for that to take place?
TH: "Well, the ideal situation would be as soon as possible – for all the stakeholders concerned, particularly for the families. However, being quick is not as important as being accurate. These events are very complex because there are a number of factors that could be involved and after an event like this often the environment is very damaged and so investigators will require extra time to be able to assess the physical environment and to understand what happened accordingly. So a very uncomplicated incident can take several weeks and so investigators can come to some strong conclusion. Other events including events that have occurred here in the U.S. involving underground coal disasters have taken months or years to adequately investigate. So I think what we're talking about here is the difference between an initial explanation of what they believed happened, and a detailed investigation of the entire event.
VOA: I've been following the media in Turkey including what's been coming from the mine. There's a lot of questions being posed to the owner of the mine as well as the authorities. One of the questions was about the training of the miners. Here in the United States? We have a little bit of an idea of how things are in Turkey – particularly about the emergency drills. When there is an emergency should they be trained?
TH: "Anyone who operates a mine – whether its surface or underground coal is obligated to train their miners on emergency procedures. This involves both understanding of what the risks are so they can be recognized by groups of individuals working in those environments - that they understand what the emergency response procedures are – how people in the mine will be notified in the case of an emergency that is happening so they can properly evacuate. What emergency provisions they can take to protect themselves using personal protective equipment, refuge chambers and also appropriate methods of escaping the mine environment. And so all of those requirements are applied to all mines and it is the obligation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration within the Department of Labor to verify that all miners have received that training and that companies have conducted adequate mine emergency drills accordingly."
VOA: The prime minister of Turkey indicated deadly mine disasters regardless of what country it is. He gave examples of deadly mine disasters in developed countries going back to the 19th century. What is the statistical possibility of having such a high death toll in a modern mine?
"We don't have a statistical benchmark that we can say here's the probability of something happening. It really has to be assessed mine by mine. I have no doubt that in Turkey, there are mines that are very safe. I was last in Turkey in 2009 and I visited some surface coal mines there.
There are also mines in very developed countries with a long mining history in the mining industry who face disasters. In our country the last one was in 2010 in which 29 miners died and that was the worst disaster in the industry in 40 years.
So the issue here really is about risk. Methane gas doesn't know whether it's in Turkey, Tanzania or anywhere else in the world. If you don't control the gas source and sources of ignition, you're going to have significant problems. If you don't control ground conditions in an underground mine – that is prevent cadence from happening – coal that is unstable doesn't know that it's in Turkey any more than anywhere else in the world.
So this is less about where we are in history than individual countries and companies and governments recognizing that you need to understand what the risks are, you need to have regulations that are appropriate for the risk, you need to have compliance with those regulations and even then, we don't know that it's possible to eliminate – in fact in my opinion it's not possible to eliminate all risk in mining. And that means companies have to be motivated to make sure there are adequate levels of control in place. "
VOA: In 2012, the CEO of the Soma mine had previously indicated that before the mine was privatized per ton operating cost was around $130 - $140 – his company was able to lower this to $23.80. Based on your expertise, is it possible to have such drastic cost-cutting measures without sacrificing anything?
TH: "Well it's interesting. I don't think you can make generalizations about that statement without understanding the specifics of what they're doing at the mine. From my perspective the safest mines are the most productive...because they eliminate losses. Losses in the form of the death of employees or miners, the loss of stopping production - so there is a misperception in the world that if you push hard on safety you give up on production. And I think the evidence over the last 100 years has become clearer and clearer that if you ensure adequate safety and you minimize the interruptions that are caused by these sorts of events you end up being a more effective operation. And for people who don't appreciate that they are likely to continue to experience those sorts of problems. "
VOA: Is there a global organization for mining?
TH: " Not one, no - there are a number of organizations that have interest in mining, who have defined voluntary standards – for example the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland – there are professional groups – I'm associated with Mining Engineering - on the national and international level – but there isn't any one group that is looked at as the authority in this area. And a lot of it is focused on the national level so you will find a very large number of resources – governmental, labor, industry, acedemic, consulting so forth in a number of developed countries whose sole focus is on safety.
This is a global community. When something like this happens we all feel it. And so I'm sure you'll find there are a great many people like myself who are ready to help in any way they can. The only thing worse than having something like this happen, is to not learn from it and not try to prevent it from happening again."