Soviet Coal Mine Accidents Kill 45

The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 20, 2006; 4:55 PM

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Coal mining accidents Wednesday in Kazakhstan and Ukraine killed at least 45 workers and left eight missing and presumed dead, raising concerns about mine safety in the former Soviet republics.

A methane gas explosion at the Lenin mine in central Kazakhstan that killed 32 miners was so powerful that bodies were found more than a half-mile away, Kazakh TV channel KTK reported.

Zhanar Bekbanova, spokeswoman for the Karaganda regional administration, said eight miners are missing and presumed dead, and three were hospitalized in serious condition.

Regional emergencies official Stanislav Sytnik said more than 300 miners escaped on their own.

"We only just arrived to start our shift and this happened," said Sergei Dragun, a repair brigade supervisor, in televised remarks. "My head is splitting. There was smoke and I couldn't see anything after that."

Mine owner Arcelor Mittal said it was unclear what caused the blast, and that a full investigation would be launched.

"We deeply regret this tragic accident and extend our full sympathy and condolences to the families of everyone that has been affected," company CEO Lakshmi Mittal said in statement. "Our current priority is to search for the missing miners, and to lend support to the families of the bereaved."

The coal mine is part of a vast complex of mines and generating plants that power Kazakhstan's largest metal factory. The complex, located about 120 miles south of the capital, Astana, was taken over by Arcelor Mittal 11 years ago and workers have long alleged that the international steel giant, which employs 320,000 in 61 plants across 27 countries, has done little to improve working or safety conditions.

In December 2004, an explosion at another Mittal Steel-owned mine in the Karaganda region killed 23 people.

A methane gas leak at the Zasyadko mine in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine killed 13 workers and injured at least 61.

The early morning accident at one of Ukraine's largest coal mines was the fourth in seven years. So far this year, 130 miners have been killed in Ukraine's 273 mines, officials said.

"Our mines remain the most dangerous in the world because the mining has to be done at very deep levels and the equipment is outdated," said Mykhailo Volynyets, head of Ukraine's Industrial Trade Union of Miners.

Emergency Situations spokesman Ihor Krol said 400 miners were working at a depth of about 3,600 feet when "an unexpected eruption of a coal and gas mixture" _ later identified as methane _ occurred.

Rescuers managed to save 36 of the 49 miners trapped by the gas, bringing the injured men to the surface for treatment. The bodies of 13 others were also found, Krol said.

Another 351 miners were evacuated from safer areas of the mine, but 25 of them also sought medical help, he said.

Relatives and friends of miners gathered around the mine's central entrance, where emergency vehicles crowded.

Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Klyuev said in televised remarks that the victims died from gas poisoning _ "methane probably emitted from rocks."

Mykola Volynko, head of the Independent Trade Union of Miners in the Donetsk Basin, insisted that the Zasyadko mine was "one of the most safe in Ukraine."

He said the mine, located about 450 miles southeast of Kiev, makes special efforts to keep methane from collecting at high levels.

"They observe all safety rules," he said. "An accident happened."

Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, nearly 4,300 miners have been killed in accidents in Ukraine. For every 1 million tons of coal brought to the surface in Ukraine, three miners lose their lives, according to official data.

In 2002, a methane explosion at the Zasyadko mine killed 20 miners. A year earlier, 54 died in an explosion of methane gas. In May 1999, 50 miners were killed in a methane and coal dust blast there.

© 2006 The Associated Press