Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited a coal mine in Zonguldak before this month's deadly accident. Photo via World Bulletin.
The coal that powers some 24 percent of Turkey's electricity -- and, in lump form, still warms the homes of many of its poorest people -- had a very high price last week when the bodies of 28 mine workers were found after a gas explosion in a coal mine near the country's Black Sea coast. Two more miners have not yet been found but are presumed dead. As Turkey mourns the deaths, what's really gotten people angry is the idea -- expressed at the highest level of government -- that mine workers and their families should be resigned to that fate."It is impossible to prevent a methane gas explosion 100 percent. Unfortunately this is the fate of this profession in many places throughout the world," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said after the explosion at the state-owned Karadon mine in Zonguldak. His remarks, which the prime minister has since reiterated, have drawn fierce criticism for their fatalism, and their seeming implication that nothing can be done to keep deadly accidents from happening.
In reality, though, whether miners anywhere in the world live or die largely depends not on "fate" but on down-to-earth basics such as inspections, training, equipment, and safety measures.
Turkey Third Most Dangerous Country for Coal Miners
The Zonguldak explosion was Turkey's third major mining accident in six months. Since 1941, more than 3,700 people have died and 370,000 have been injured in mining accidents in Turkey, making it the most dangerous country for miners in Europe, with a mining accident death rate four times the average. Worldwide, it has the third highest risk of mine accidents, after China and Russia. The parliamentary commission that reported the figures cited a lack of workplace safety measures and independent inspections, as well as the hiring of unskilled workers by mining companies.
Those kind of unnecessary risks don't just face miners in developing countries either. In the weeks following the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years -- an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 -- the New York Times compared the safety practices of Massey Energy, the company operating the mine, with those elsewhere in the industry and found the firm sorely lacking. According to the Times, Massey has failed to conduct pre-shift safety checks, done a shoddy job of keeping deadly gasses from building up inside its mines, sent inadequately trained workers underground, and even failed to properly maintain the lifelines that guide miners out to safety during emergencies.
Everyone is at Risk
The Turkish prime minister was right about one thing: Despite these dangers, miners keep going back underground. "A worker gets into the profession knowing that these kinds of incidents may occur. His father and uncle lose their lives under a cave-in and he ends up a miner himself, too. We have seen this before..." Erdoğan said at the Zonguldak mine. But most workers don't persist with the job out of a sort of romantic fatalism, but out of the cold reality that their economic options are limited.
For a few, too, risking fire, explosion, gas poisoning, or cave-ins underground is better than one of the alternatives -- seeing more mining move out in the open, where it puts their families and homes in danger too. The weight of that terrible choice is one of my most enduring memories from a trip many years ago to report on the effects of mountaintop removal mining in Whitesville, West Virginia -- the home of the Upper Big Branch mine. "Every miner that goes underground knows the danger. He knows every day he may not come home," one miner's wife told me. "However, he makes that decision. Mountaintop removal puts everybody around at risk, whether they're 90 years old or one day old, and they have no choice in the matter."
And as Foreign Policy has recently reported, "most of coal's victims actually never set foot in a mine" -- far larger numbers die every year from exposure to pollution from coal-fired power plants. Unless we can break the cycle of risk and death by reducing reliance on coal, the Zonguldak miners' "fate" is something that affects us all.
More on coal mining:
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One More Coal Mine Disaster: The Root Cause That Impacts Everyone
EPA Data Shows Streams Near Mountaintop Removal Coal Mines Toxic
Mining Coal is Clean? Tell That to the Miners With Black Lung
EPA Approves One New Mountaintop Removal Coal Mine, Finds 'Path Forward' for Second
In Appalachia, Coal Mining Costs $9-$76 Billion More Per Year Than It Pulls In, Claims Study
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