Turkey coal mine explosion: Did lawmaker's warning go unheeded?

Turkey has one of the worst mining safety records among industrialized nations, and a local politician says that his calls for higher standards have gone ignored. 

Depo Photos/AP
Miners carry a rescued miner after an explosion and fire at a coal mine killed at least 17 miners and left up to 300 workers trapped underground, in Soma, in western Turkey, Tuesday. Twenty people were rescued from the mine but one later died in the hospital.

More than 200 miners remain trapped underground in a Turkish coal mine in a crisis that has highlighted the country’s dismal mining safety record—and alleged government indifference to it.

Fifteen people have been confirmed dead and 30 injured after an electrical transformer exploded today, sparking a fire and disabling the main lift at the Soma mine in western Manisa province, trapping workers up to 6,500 feet below ground.

As rescue teams battled thick smoke to try to reach them, hundreds of colleagues and relatives gathered outside a local hospital where the injured were being treated. As night set in, Turkish television showed footage of rescued miners emerging coated in soot to cheering crowds. However, Turkey's disaster agency said many more remained trapped underground. 

Assertions that the disaster could have been prevented are already surfacing. Turkey's main opposition party petitioned the government last October to investigate conditions at the mine, but its request was rejected just 20 days before today's accident.

“One in every three months there are accidents with deaths and injuries [at Soma],” Ozgur Ozel, a local MP for the opposition People’s Republican Party said in a statement today. “As Manisa members of parliament we are sick of attending the funerals of dead miners. Neither us nor the hearts of the families can stand this pain anymore.”

After the petition was turned down, Mr. Ozel voiced his concerns in Turkey’s National Assembly on April 30. He said that 10 safety inspections had discovered 66 infractions at the mine in recent years, but that no fines had been issued.

The Turkish company that runs the mine, Soma Holding, said in a statement that the accident had occurred despite "measures taken as part of the highest and most sustained inspection process."

Turkey has long had a poor mining safety record, with accidents and deaths occurring frequently. The country’s worst mine disaster to date was a gas explosion that killed 270 workers in the province of Zonguldak in 1992.

Politicians have often referred to these accidents as inevitable sacrifices that go with a difficult job.

In 2010, after 28 miners died at a mine near Zonguldak on the Black Sea coast, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sparked controversy by declaring that such deaths were part of the "fate" of mining communities.

“The people of the region are quite used to events like these,” he said in a speech outside the mine. “This profession has this in its destiny. The workers get into the profession knowing that these kinds of incidents may occur.”

His comments prompted protests in the town. Regardless of his response to the latest unfolding tragedy, it will almost inevitably become an issue in Turkey’s highly divided political scene.

After emerging almost unscathed from a major corruption scandal, Mr. Erdogan is now gearing up for a possible run at becoming the country’s first directly elected president in polls due in August.

While mass anti-government protests in Istanbul last summer by mainly middle-class urban Turks attracted little sympathy from the conservative voters who form the bedrock of his support, anger among blue collar miners may prove damaging. In 2010, mass strikes by state tobacco company workers generated widespread public sympathy.

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