Put miners in charge

August 29, 2014

From the September-October 2014 issue of News & Letters

Detroit—A mid-May fire killed 301 miners by carbon monoxide poisoning due to mine owners’ negligence in the worst coal mine disaster in Turkey’s history (see “Turkish miners killed,” July-August N&L). First reports indicated that the fire started when a transformer blew up. A subsequent investigation revealed that smoldering coal had caught fire, but gave no explanation of why it was smoldering. There was speculation about defective electrical wiring insulation in contact with coal.

Prime Minister Recep Erdogan went to Soma, the site of the mine. Instead of displaying compassion, he became combative with the stricken mourners. He expressed the capitalist excuse that such accidents occur in mines. (This same sentiment expressed by United Mine Workers union President Tony Boyle following the Farmington mine disaster in West Virginia in 1968 cost him the union presidency in spite of fraud and murder.) Erdogan’s behavior infuriated the Turkish people, and precipitated protests throughout the country—protests that were dispersed by tear gas and water cannon.

 Four coal company officials have been arrested, including the mine manager, and charged with causing many deaths and injuries by their negligence. According to Turkish law, the penalty is three to 15 years in prison, but it remains to be seen if they will even be put on trial. The judge assigned to the case raised an interesting question, asking mine officials why they didn’t act to warn the miners of danger when sensors detected the carbon monoxide before the fire started. A satisfactory answer is yet to come.

In charge of the mine since 2009, the Soma Mining Company hasn’t explained how the fire spread over 2.3 square miles underground. The answer may never be known, because the company has sealed the mine.

Miners and mine investigators had made many reports of safety violations before the fire. As usual, these violations were only disclosed after the tragedy. There is no one who knows the safety conditions in a mine as well as the miners who work there every day. That is why the mines will never be safe until the miners have effective control of safety in the mines.

—Andy Phillips

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