MOSCOW – A few days before his death as a result of a mine explosion in the coal-rich Kuzbass, Boris Piyalkin complained about the inadequacy of safety standards at his workplace.
“He sat there crying and was just afraid,” said Angelika Piyalkina, the daughter-in-law of Mr. Piyalkin, who worked as a miner for three decades but became increasingly afraid of the conditions in which he was asked to work.
Mr. Piyalkin, 55, was one of 46 miners and six rescuers killed Thursday in an explosion at the Listvyazhnaya mine in Belovo, about 2,200 miles east of Moscow and two hours south of Kemerovo. The accident happened after the ventilation shaft began to fill with gas when 285 people were underground, officials said.
Mr. Piyalkin’s wife, Inna Piyalkina, stated in a video widely circulated in the Russian media that he had reported that the level of methane at the mine was “off scale”. She added, “My husband came home from work every day and said it would end badly.”
The tragedy, the worst mine accident in Russia in more than a decade, is a reminder of the country’s poor protection of workers and its growing dependence on coal mining.
As Western countries seek to reduce their use of fossil fuels, Russia, which accounts for more than 16 percent of global coal trade, is the world’s third largest coal exporter after Australia and Indonesia. This year, Russia has increased production by 10 percent.
A video taken outside the mine shows grieving women who lost their relatives in a disaster walking through the snow in sub-zero temperatures. One woman says to another: “Everyone knew, everyone knew there was methane, and now what? We will return the bodies, but will they return more than 40 children, husbands and sons to us? “
The director of the mine was detained by the police along with five other administrators. But prosecutors are also looking into possible violations by observers who were supposed to check the mine for compliance with safety standards.
An unnamed official from the technical oversight body overseeing mines in the region told the Russian state news agency TASS that the mine’s methane sensor did not exceed the MPC.
Mikhail Yuryevich Fedyaev, CEO of SDS-Ugol, the operator of the Listvyazhnaya mine, said on Friday that the company would pay between 1 and 2 million rubles, approximately US $ 13,200 to $ 26,500, to the family of each victim. died, and 500,000 rubles for each person hospitalized for injuries sustained in Thursday’s disaster following a string of violations at the mine this year.
Rostechnadzor, the state environmental, technological and nuclear supervisor, has suspended work at the Listvyazhnaya mine nine times this year due to various violations, spokesman for the watchdog service Andrei Vil wrote in the Telegram messaging app.
According to him, since the beginning of the year, specialists of the supervisory authority have conducted 127 inspections of various sections of the mine, identified 914 violations and fined Listvyazhnaya in the amount of more than 4 million rubles.
One investigation by Rostekhnadzor in April 2021 found multiple irregularities, including faulty methane sensors, lack of sensors for early fire detection in one part of the mine, faulty doors in the ventilation structure, and employees who were not trained in the gas and gas monitoring system. …
However, the Investigative Committee of Russia, the country’s main investigative body, has also opened a case against local inspectors on charges of negligence. The committee stated that the two main government inspectors, whose duties included ensure the safety of ventilation shafts, did not carry out a routine inspection and falsified a report a week before the accident, which said that the site was in compliance with standards.
SDS-Ugol is the third largest coal producer and exporter in Russia. Mr. Fedyaev, the executive director, owns 95 percent of the parent company, and his son Pavel is the representative in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. Father is one of the richest people in Russia.
In 2020, the company produced 28.2 million tons of coal and plans to increase this volume to 32 million tons by 2035. About 97 percent of the coal is exported, but a company spokesperson will not release a customer list.
Work at the mine has been suspended until further notice, said enterprise spokeswoman Tatyana Dimenko. She declined to comment on plans to improve the safety of miners and the possibility of firing someone due to the accident.
Experts say accidents like the one at Listvyazhnaya are inevitable as Russia seeks to extract as much coal as possible before it is decommissioned as the country gradually switches to renewable energy sources. According to the Ministry of Economy, from 2007 to 2017, Russia increased its coal supplies fivefold, and exports to China 24 times.
Coal prices hit record highs in October, and companies have tried to capitalize on this.
“The reason Russia increased its coal export targets for the next ten years is because they hoped to catch that window” due to increased demand for coal in countries such as China and India, said Nicholas Birman-Trickett. , an energy analyst covering Eastern Europe and India. Central Asia.
The industry’s profit margins are high and are rising due to the current energy crises in Europe and China. However, Mr Birman-Trickett said that due to the dim prospects for the long-term outlook for the coal industry, enterprises and local governments are reluctant to invest in an aging and therefore often unsafe mining infrastructure.
“This is sheer inattention,” Alexander Sergeev, chairman of the Independent Trade Union of Russian Miners, told the MK newspaper on Friday. “There is a problem of compliance with safety rules by owners and management. And now they are again shifting the blame onto the workers. This is a systemic problem where people will do everything for the sake of profit. “
In recent months, Russia has struggled to export coal fast enough. The Baikal-Amur Railway, which runs from Eastern Siberia to the Russian Far East, is expanding as one of the country’s largest ongoing infrastructure projects to boost coal exports.
The Kemerovo region produces half of the coal mined in Russia, and also has many of the most severe mine accidents. In May 2010, 66 people died in an explosion at the country’s largest underground coal mine, Raspadskaya, caused by a methane accumulation.
The region has also become an arena of government dissatisfaction, with locals saying that companies seem to prioritize profits over people’s well-being.
In March 2018, a fire in a shopping center in the region killed 60 people, including 37 children. The court found that the owners and managers of the mall ignored fire safety rules in order to save money.
The event sparked a wave of anger against the government of the country and the region, including the days of protests that prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to travel to Kemerovo to lay flowers at the memorial to the victims.
Today, anger at companies and authorities in the region is still felt.
“The company is to blame, which only needs coal,” Inna Piilakina told reporters outside the mine, mourning her husband. “Human life is not valued.”
Oleg Matsnev and Alina Lobzina prepared reports.