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By John Helmer in Moscow

The question of who, if anyone, is protecting coalminers intensifies in public, following Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to the scene of the Raspadskaya mine disaster at Mezhdurechensk yesterday. The double explosion of methane in the Raspadskaya mine on the weekend has so far killed 52, with 38 still unaccounted for. Another 59 have been rescued, and are being treated for injuries.

Media summaries are tilting between the management and the miner versions for the cause of the methane explosions.

Putin has carefully avoided taking these sides, calling instead for “a very detailed investigation into accident — this is not only for the bereaved families of miners and rescuers, it is necessary for us all. The situation at the mine, the actions of specific officials – we must study all this carefully. We need to know what led to such a large number of victims of the tragedy of such magnitude…”

By visiting the mine site – on Monday President Dmitry Medvedev visited miners being treated in a Moscow hospital – the Prime Minister has raised the political visibility of the loss of life – and with that, public questioning of safety regulation and corporate accountability. Not at any of the fatal mine incidents in Kemerovo has the Russian political leadership taken this degree of public initiative before.

While this risks local expression of political discontent, the Kremlin is so far shielding the proprietors of the mine companies from having to give an account themselves. Of the proprietors, it is Roman Abramovich who is the most visible control stakeholder in the worst of the recent coalmine explosions, including the two Yuzhkuzbassugol mine losses in 2007 and the latest Raspadskaya disaster. Abramovich rarely appears in public in Russia, and almost never at his Russian properties; he has never made a public speech on his business in Russia.

Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the State Duma, has mimicked Putin, saying “there was a tragedy. For its reasons we should seriously investigate. Neglect of safety leads to very serious consequences. The outcome of the investigation should be to raise the overall level of security at all Russian mines. For now, while the rescue operation is continuing, conclusions are too early. I hope that all who can be saved will be saved. I express my condolences to the bereaved families.”

The State Duma agreed to hold a minute’s silence at the start of today’s session. This was almost the limit of the parliamentary action.

The Communist Party issued a statement, written by the Second Secretary of the Kemerovo region branch, A.N. Studenikin. The statement is headed: “Tragedy at Raspadskaya — not a mystery of nature, but a systemic regularity.” According to the Communist Party statement, “how long will each million tonnes of coal mined be measured in human lives? … If equipped with the latest technology, the newest Kuzbass mines, equipped with the best protection systems, were unable to secure the miners’ work, what to expect from the other mines? What is worth risking the lives today of the Kuzbass miners? For that, the number of billionaires in the country has doubled over the past year…Taking the best of western coal technology, introducing the best western technology for the organization of labor in the mines, the owners have been deliberately forgetting the main thing – the safety of miners’ labor. Do not speak here about the ‘mysteries of nature’, the unpredictability of what happened — do not look for the miners’ tossing jackets on the sensors. The nature of the incident is not in some private abuses — it is systemic. The safety of the miner’s work should be determined, not by the grace of the owner…This must be the result of an equal partnership approach to ensuring safety by the owner and by the employees through real labor unions, fully independent and powerful.”

According to the Moscow Times version favouring the management, “a miner who managed to get to the surface after the first blast told a co-worker, Konstantin Inyushev, who had the day off Saturday, that the equipment had been in order and he had not smelled methane, which often causes mine explosions, RIA-Novosti reported late Monday. A rescuer told RIA-Novosti on Tuesday that methane levels were normal before the second blast. A Raspadskaya miner identified as Mikhail told Moskovsky Komsomolets that methane levels were always slightly above the norm in the mine, but that wasn’t dangerous. No serious safety violations have been recorded at the mine over the past 16 months, according to an Energy Ministry report cited by Tayga.info on Tuesday.”

The New York Times reported intentional suppression of methane sensors for the buildup of gas and ignition. It also reported Mother Nature to blame. “We could be looking at a sudden emission of methane as large as tens of thousands of cubic meters,” said Vadim Potapov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Coal and Coal Mining, in an interview with Itar-Tass. “That kind of emission taking place deep underground could be considered a mystery of nature.”

The Moscow-based Trud (“Labour”) reports that most residents of the mining town Mezhdurechensk believe the disaster was caused by “massive violations of safety at the local mines”. According to its mine worker interviews, the newspaper says: “[the Raspadskaya mine] design capacity is well below the level of coal production…However, the ventilation of underground tunnels, built to the design capacity, was inadequate [to the production level]. This could lead to a gradual increase in the concentration of methane in the mine. The miner Fyodor shared his opinion with our correspondent: ‘Yes, the ventilation unit at Raspadskaya was modern. But it could not provide adequate ventilation communications. Everyone knew it.’ For none of the miners is it a secret that the methane analyzers are often taped over by workers, so that they do not trigger [a shutdown when] there is an increase in the concentration of gas. Underground electrician Alexei T. said: ‘Last year, during a fire at one of the mines two safety systems did not work. And noone said about it. Everything at Raspadskaya is aimed at coal production rather than creation of working conditions.’

“Miner Alexander L. Miner shared with Trud this version: ‘The truth is not told. I am working at the mine for two years, and during this time, seven or eight explosions have happened. Of course, not so destructive. The last one, in January. Blame the human factor. We have a leadership that looks at us like cattle. They pay a dime. Eighteen months ago, we tried to strike, so they replied: “Say thank you for your wages. If you react, we’ll bring in the Chinese.” [Management] is almost ready for a free-of-charge coalmine. ‘Everybody needs a plan: the management and the workers. And to be honest, the sensors do not pay attention – if it complains, give it a rag, and continue working’.”

Following the two fatal explosions at mines of Yuzhkuzbassugol in 2007, the federal mine safety inspection agency Rostekhnadzor (RTN) announced the dismissal of seven local inspectors for what was described as turning a blind eye to the safety violations preceding the explosions. RTN’s director, former Army Lieutenant-General Konstantin Pulikovsky, accused the company of a “breach of safety rules in order to make a profit”. Several weeks later, in August of that year, Pulikovsky publicly criticized RTN’s performance of its mandate. “The inspection of industrial safety has now become a sphere for earning money, but it should play a different role,” he said.

Two weeks after Pulikovsky (left) said that, he was replaced by a decree of Putin’s, and his deputy, Nikolai Kut’in, a lawyer from St. Petersburg, put in his place.

RTN said today it will require two to three weeks before its investigation can determine the “technical causes of the accident”.

Note: the Russian headline on the 1936 poster reads: “The reality of our program are the living people, it is us.” (Stalin)

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