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By John Helmer in Moscow

The Chelyabinsk prosecutor has opened a criminal investigation into a lethal explosion this week at a coke battery of the Mechel group in Chelyabinsk. One worker at the battery was killed immediately, and three others are in serious condition in hospital after the blast, which occurred, according to a company statement, on Thursday morning, at coke shop number 2 of Mechel-Coke. A search by Emergency Ministry specialists continues today for others who may have been killed in the explosion, and remain unrecognizable in the rubble.

Union representatives told CRU Steel News that it is premature to conclude what caused the accident and the fatalities. They also reported that there have been previous accidents at the coke battery which have gone unreported publicly.

The company says the accident resulted after the ignition of gas at the coke oven battery’s number-8 machine. The company says repairs will take “about two weeks”, and lost output will amount to about 900 tonnes of coke per day. Operating requirements for Mechel’s steel furnaces will be met out of inventories.

Local sources report that state investigators are looking into the possible infringement of labour protection rules. The sources report that napthalene gas combined with coke oven gasses to trigger the fatal explosion. The deputy prosecutor-general for the Urals region, Yury Zolotov, has announced that “it is necessary to resolve the issue of liability of the guilty officials who have committed gross violations of safety rules when carrying out works.”

Yuri Goranov, head of the Chelyabinsk branch of the Mining and Metallurgical Trade Union of Russia, responded to questions about work safety at the plant by saying: “There are several versions of what happened at Mechel-Coke, and the principal one is that coke gas blew out of the pipe and exploded”. Asked if the plant was being run over safe levels, he noted that “two or three weeks ago we of the trade union met with Sergei Malyshev, CEO of Mechel-Coke. He said that the plant hadn’t reached the pre-crisis level yet, so it’s hardly possible that the norms of production were exceeded”. Goranov added that there had been accidents at the plant before this, “and remarks regarding the operation of the plant”.

Vladimir Kukarin, chief technical inspector of the trade union, told CRU Steel News: “Coke production is unhealthy, and there are accidents, too. There was one casualty in 2008 — a repair man was killed while repairing the coke battery. There was one serious injury of an electrician in 2008, and another serious injury in 2009. The repair man tripped over a heap of rubbish, fell down and was injured. I was not included into any of the commissions which are now investigating into the explosion, so I cannot tell you what exactly happened there.”

The last major accident reported by the Mechel group was in April 2009, when the coal-mine affiliate, Yuzhkuzbassugol (“Southern Kuzbass Coal”) in Mezhdurechensk, had a cave-in in which several miners were injured.

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