Why you should care

Because there aren’t enough canaries in the world to keep these coal miners safe.

The small Turkish town of Soma, near the Aegean Sea, was once better known for its spartan houses and quaint surrounding farmland. But ever since 301 miners died last year in a nearby coal mine explosion and fire, locals have been mourning their loss — and insisting the government do more to prevent it from happening again.

People in the U.S. and Europe may be used to thinking of coal as the past, but in much of the rest of the world, it’s still the future — a dark and dangerous future, particularly for the miners who carve coal from the depths of the Earth. Mining coal has always been hazardous; think of the 29 West Virginia miners who died in an underground explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010. The problem is that in many places, Turkey perhaps foremost among them, coal mining is getting more dangerous, not less. And governments are left trying to find effective, but still affordable, ways to keep them safer.

By one measure, Turkish coal mines are at least five times more hazardous than any others on the planet. Overall fatalities are far higher in the Chinese mining industry, generally considered the world’s deadliest because of its scale; it employs roughly half of the world’s 10 million coal miners. But China’s mining deaths are falling, while Turkey’s are going in the other direction. A May report found that Turkish workplace accidents, about 10 percent of which occur in mines, increased by almost 300 percent in 2013 alone, while over 13,000 miners were injured that same year.

Despite the risks, coal production in Turkey is expected only to grow.

Figures like these make many coal mining experts nervous, especially since coal production continues to rise despite the growing prevalence of affordable alternatives like natural gas. Coal remains king in many energy-hungry developing nations; China uses it to generate 81 percent of its electricity, India 71 percent and Indonesia 48 percent, according to the World Coal Association. Even in Europe, Balkan nations such as Serbia and Bosnia are doubling down on coal-fired electricity and mining. Such countries have had little incentive to wean themselves off coal, as they were exempted from carbon-emission targets in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

In Turkey, coal mining remains a vital part of the national economy. With little indigenous oil or gas, the country has to intensively mine lignite, or brown coal, to meet growing national energy demands, digging up 73 million tons every year. As a result, in the 10 years following 2001, Turkey’s coal mining output rose sixfold to the value of $11.7 billion. And it’s set to grow as more companies look to open new mines here. The question is: Can safety measures keep up with that growth?

Turkey’s central government hasn’t said much publicly about the Soma accident or mine safety in general, although it did close the Soma mine and ratified two International Labor Organization safety conventions. Its immediate response to Soma, however, drew criticism, particularly after an aide to the prime minister was photographed kicking a local mining protester right after the accident. Six months later, another 18 workers died in the central Turkish city of Ermenek, when the mine they were working in flooded.

Soma’s public prosecutor — think of him as the local district attorney — launched an investigation earlier this year that led to eight arrests and charges against 45 executives and employees of the coal company, ranging from first-degree murder to willful negligence against other workers. In the course of that investigation, testimony revealed that some incomplete safety inspections were signed off, and none of the tunnel’s special survival rooms were operational. (Representatives of Soma Coal Enterprises, which operated the Soma mine, didn’t respond to OZY inquiries.)

mine

Protesters in Istanbul hold body bags representing dead miners following a tragedy in Turkey.

Source Avni Kantan/Corbis

Turkey’s mining record may sound alarming, but it’s by no means an exception. Many workers involved in Chile’s infamous “Los 33” copper mine collapse and rescue mission in 2010 have since suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and filed a lawsuit against the government on charges of careless mine inspection. Australia is also hugely dependent on coal for export cash; its mining fatalities have declined in recent years, notes Paul Maseli, a representative of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, although that’s largely because China’s appetite for coal has fallen, taking Australian production down with it.

While coal mining today is still a dangerous job, some places do it better than others. The majority of Turkish mining is carried out by hand, which increases the risk of death or injury. China, by contrast, has begun using giant coal-cutting machines in its largest mines that workers can control from the surface; the nation’s top work-safety official, Yang Dongliang, reportedly says he dreams of replacing all the workers in coal mines with robots. (The Chinese government also doubled down on mine safety because of “widespread embarrassment” at its high death toll a decade ago, says Tim Wright, a political economist at the University of Sheffield; the situation there is “still not great, but much better,” he adds.)

Despite the risks, coal mining production in Turkey is expected only to grow. In February, Chinese, Saudi Arabian and Slovakian companies applied to construct and operate a mine at Turkey’s second-biggest lignite reserve. It would open up access to almost 2 billion tons of coal, potentially putting more lives at risk in the process.

Jose Fermoso contributed reporting.

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