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By John Helmer in Moscow

The apparent owner and board chairman of the Zasyadko mine has been targeted for blame in Ukraine’s worst mine explosion by surviving miners.

Miners who survived the catastrophic methane explosion at the Zasyadko mine in the Ukraine on Sunday say that the mine’s chairman and apparent proprietor, Yefim Zvagilsky, is to blame for unsafe working conditions at the mine, and for imposing steep shift production quotas that led to the suppression of methane detection and shut-off systems.

The accident occurred on November 18 in the Donetsk area of eastern Ukraine. 457 miners were working the overnight shift, when a methane explosion occurred at the Zasyadko pit. A total of 90 miners are confirmed dead; 10 are still missing; 30 are hospitalized. The explosion and fire at a depth of more than a thousand metres has continued to burn; it incinerated most of the dead miners beyond recognition. The fatalities amount to the worst death toll in a Ukrainian coal-mine since 2000.

The accident has had immediate political consequences, triggering visits to the minehead by both Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich, whose electoral base is in the Donetsk and Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine; as well as from President Victor Yushchenko, whose political support is concentrated mostly in the west.

Yushchenko said: “What happened here is an indictment for all levels of authority, for the entire country. It is a humiliation for everyone… We will draw lessons from it. The priority must be to ensure safety in the workplace.” He is reported by Ukrainian media as claiming that the Zasyadko mine, one of Ukraine’s most efficient and profitable, had made advances to reduce the risk of methane gas.

When he flew to Donetsk, Yanukovich was more guarded in his remarks, confining himself to the particulars of the accident, not the causes: “There is a blockage at the accident site formed by a cave-in, airshafts and water channels. This is being cleared. Fire and smoke remain in section 14. The fire is still burning.”

Their political rivalry points up the fact that Zvagilsky, the mine boss, is a backer of Yanukovich, and that the mine asset was transferred from state to private property in a process, the details of which no-one is currently willing to discuss openly.

Yuri Zayets, head of the Zasyadko coal mine’s trade union council, was evasive on the accident cause, telling Mineweb “”the reason is still unknown, but it is under investigation.”” He was asked who owns the mine.””The owner of the mine is the Ukrainian government. But it landed on to the staff of the mine for operations.” This was disputed by Donetskugol. the state enterprise which used to own Zasyadko. A source there told Mineweb: “The Zasyadko mine is no longer on the books of our enterprise” The source claimed he was unable to say when it was sold, or to whom.

Mineweb has reported in detail on the chain of commercial pressures that has led to similar catastrophic methane explosions in Russian coalmines over the past two years. The most recent, in March of this year, was the worst-ever in a Russian coalmine, killing 110. It occurred at the Ulyanovsk mine in Siberia, owned by Yuzhkuzbassugol (“South Kuzbass Coal”). Failure to prevent a sudden increase in methane was blamed for the explosion. Subsequently, the Evraz steel group, which had held a 50% stake in the coalmining company, bought out the second half, owned by management, at a heavily discounted price.

Rostechnadzor, Russia’s mine inspection agency, told Mineweb it had uncovered violations at Ulyanovsk during an inspection the year before the fatal blast. Further violations, and non-compliance with previous recommendations, were reportedly found during an inspection by Rostechnadzor, one week before the blast. Requests for details of the two reports were refused by Rostechnadzor. “A preliminary investigation into the accident at the Ulyanovsk mine in the Kemerovo region revealed blatant violations of the rules on the safe use of equipment,” Rostechnadzor officially announced. Violations included flaws in the mine’s ventilation system, and evidence that the personnel in charge of the system had violated safety rules.

http://www.mineweb.net/mineweb/view/mineweb/en/page38?oid=21540&sn=Detail

The reason why mine personnel suppress the methane sensors, and local inspectors either overlook the practice, or have their reports overrulled higher up the chain of command, is a highly sensitive issue.

Yesterday, the Zasyadko mine’s union boss, Zayets, was asked if the miners had been under pressure to raise output, and reduce saefty measures. He told Mineweb: “We didn’t notice such pressure.” Zayets was also asked to say what mine safety and gas detection systems have been in use at Zasyadko; when was the last state inspection; and what recommendations did the inspection report make? Zayats told Mineweb he was unable to answer any of these questions. “I am the union leader, not a specialist in technology.”

Accidents are regularly reported in Ukraine’s coal mines. Official statistics put the death toll in mining accidents in Ukraine this year at 80, although independent miner unions say the figure is higher. Last year, 170 miners died.

The Ukrainian news media have reported that the Zasyadko mine is controlled by Yefim Zvagilsky, who has effective ownership. He is well-known as an entrepreneur in the Ukraine, a parliamentary deputy, and for five days in September 1993, Zvagilsky was prime minister. Zayets told Mineweb that Zvagilsky is the chairman of the mine company’s board of directors.

A videotape, prepared and posted on the internet by Zasyadko miners, claims that there had been dangerous concentrations of methane gas in the mine at the 8% level, and that gas detection and equipment shutoff systems had been disabled, in order to faciliate what the miners call an extreme mining production plan impossible to fulfill. The technological sophistication of the mine’s equipment, which has been reported in the press, was suppressed, according to the miners. Sunday’s blast was the fourth major accident at Zasyadko in the past six years. At least 225 miners have died there since 1999.

The videotape is available to be viewed here.

Zayets told Mineweb he could add nothing because he was busy with funerals. At one of the ceremonies, news wires report Zvyagilsky as weeping and saying: “Parents, wives, children. I share in your indescribable suffering. Our mine will help you. No request for help will go unanswered.” Mineweb called Zvagilsky’s office and asked him to respond to several questions regarding legal ownership of the mine, and the claims by the miners. His secretary said Zvagilsky was not available to answer questions today.

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