Turkey Ends Mine Disaster Recovery as Final Toll Hits 301

Turkey completed the recovery of bodies from the Soma coal mine in western Turkey with the final toll from the country’s worst mining disaster reaching 301.

Rescue efforts ended when the last two victims were found underground, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told NTV today. The mine will remain closed until the cause of the blaze and a determination of any potential wrongdoing is made, he said.

The May 13 fire at the mine operated by Soma Holding SA, where 485 were rescued, had caused clashes between police and protesters over the government’s response to the disaster. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the day after the blaze that the mine had passed an inspection just last month.

Recovery efforts earlier today had been delayed when a second fire about 300 meters (1,000 feet) from the mine site broke out due to methane gas in the area. That fire now has now been extinguished, Yildiz said.

Turkey has the worst casualty record in the world in the coal mining industry, according to a research paper in 2010 by Tepav, an Ankara-based think tank. The number of deaths per 1 million metric tons of coal produced was 7.2 in Turkey as of 2008 compared with 1.3 in China and 0.02 in the U.S., it said.

While the mine didn’t have a rescue chamber, they “are not obligatory under the mining law,” Alp Gurkan, chairman of Soma Mining, said near the mine site. The company will build such rooms in a few months so that miners can take shelter there in the event of another accident, he said yesterday.

Government Criticized

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

The mine’s initial rescue chamber became obsolete and was converted into an escape hatch when the coal shaft expanded in another direction, the mine’s chief Ramazan Dogru said at a briefing. Heavy smoke and an electrical failure that knocked out elevators rendered it inaccessible, the company said.

Turkey has an estimated 14 billion tons of coal reserves, and plans to increase the share of power generated from locally produced coal to about 20 percent from 14 percent, according to the Energy Ministry. The Soma mine produces about 2.5 million tons of coal a year, according to Gurkan.

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