Turkey Mine Where 284 Perished Had No Rescue Chambers

A Turkish coal mine where more than 280 workers were killed by a fire this week didn’t have a rescue chamber, which isn’t required by law, the company’s owner said.

“Rescue chambers are not obligatory under the mining law,” Alp Gurkan, chairman of Soma Mining, told a televised press conference today. He said the company would build such rooms in a few months so that miners could take shelter there in the event of another accident.

The fire that broke out at the Soma mine in western Turkey on May 13 has killed at least 284 miners, the worst such incident in the country’s history. Another 18 people remain trapped underground, the company’s chief executive officer, Ramazan Dogru, said today.

While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said May 14 that the mine near the western town of Soma passed a government inspection at the end of March, the accident has shed light on health and safety deficiencies in Turkey’s mining industry. President Abdullah Gul said the following day that the country must review its safety regulations.

Erdogan’s government, already dogged by corruption allegations this year, has been criticized for its response to the disaster. When the premier visited Soma on May 14 he said such workplace accidents weren’t uncommon, and cited mining tragedies stretching back to the 19th century, outraging some in the grieving nation.

Protests, Strike

Police clashed with anti-government demonstrators in major cities and most labor union members went on strike yesterday. Since the accident on May 13, the lira declined 1.5 percent against the dollar, the most among emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

The mine had a rescue chamber that became obsolete and was converted into an escape hatch when the coal shaft expanded in another direction, Dogru said. Heavy smoke and an electrical failure that knocked out elevators made it inaccessible, the company said. In addition to building new chambers, the company, which has been operating the mine since 2009, intends to correct other deficiencies, Gurkan said, without elaborating.

Gurkan denied allegations of ties to Erdogan, saying he first met the premier when he visited Soma. “I never met or talked to him before,” Gurkan said. Dogru confirmed his wife was a local official of Erdogan’s ruling AK Party.

Not Negligent

Akin Celik, operations manager at the mine, said smoke filled the shaft within five minutes after the fire broke out and was still hampering relief efforts. He said the company wasn’t negligent in any way.

“There is no problem with inspections or any legal loopholes” in the mining law, ruling AK Party Spokesman Huseyin Celik told a televised news conference today. “You can only minimize accidents in mining but obviously we’re not at that point yet.”

Turkey has more than 14 billion tons of coal reserves, and is planning to increase the share of electricity generated from locally produced coal to about 20 percent from 14 percent, according to the Energy Ministry.

“Ankara has been eager to bring Turkey’s vast coal reserves to the attention of foreign energy companies,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a political and economic risk analyst with Teneo Intelligence in London, in an e-mailed note.

Turkey’s economic growth under Erdogan’s 12-year tenure has been accompanied by a worsening record on industrial safety, Amnesty International wrote on its website on May 14. Turkey had the highest rate of worker deaths in Europe and the world’s third-highest in 2012, it said, citing data from the International Labor Organization.

“Of the 3,000 miners who have died in Turkish mines since 1941, more than a third have died since 2002, when AKP came to power,” the report said, referring to the Turkish acronym for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

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