By Aliza Goldberg
My initial contact for this article remains unavailable for interview because he is “literally stuck in a mine,” according to a July 8 email from his assistant. Australian cofounder of ResCo Services, Craig Ransley, who works to supply labor to the mining industry, went “completely MIA” during a recent trip to Turkey.
Mining accidents are a recurring and enduring problem, since energy demands are increasing rapidly with population growth and urbanization. Can governments in countries that import and export natural resources standardize mining regulations and policies?
Turkey has recently taken the spotlight on mining accidents since the May 13, 2014 catastrophe that killed 301 people in the small town of Soma. Most of the miners died from exposure to carbon monoxide gas, a consequence of an alleged electric transformer malfunction that resulted in an underground fire.
The process of quickly stripping coal makes the mine wall increasingly flammable, explains Andrew Finkel, a journalist with over 20 years of experience in Turkey. Dynamite exposes the coal embedded in a mine tunnel wall; diesel fuel powers the machinery used in extraction. The more efficient the worker, the more coal exposed, the more he endangers himself.
Mines are easy to ignore because they are hidden, removed from populous regions, and excavated by the poor. The Soma mine allegedly complied with Turkish regulations, but the supervisors allegedly knew about the “surprise” safety inspections in advance, according to The Guardian. Miners hid faulty equipment and gave the inspectors controlled tours of the facilities so that proper forms could be signed without losing business. In an effort to extract coal faster, mine owner Alp Gurkan had been cutting operation costs to increase production and receive higher bonuses—a fact he publicly boasted about prior to the May 2014 accident.
Teaching miners how to properly use existing safety equipment, such as an oral device that converts carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, could decrease the number of mining tragedies, according to Professor of Mining Engineering at Columbia University, Tuncel Yegulalp. He blames “the rapid privatization of natural resources and rampant corruption” for Soma’s mining disaster, concluding that “similar events can easily be expected in the future, for no change in government policies are forthcoming.”
The Turkish government modified its Turkish Mining Law in 2004 “to allow any Turkish citizen or company established under Turkish laws to hold mining rights for radioactive substances.” In exchange, Turkey receives a portion of the revenue. With privatization, the industry has become harder to monitor, but more profitable.
The laws that allow for increased profit have also contributed to accidents. Selim Sazak, a Turkish Fulbright scholar studying security policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, believes Soma’s disaster was one of “criminal negligence, induced by corruption. It is the Ministry of Labor’s responsibility to enforce these standards and they have not.”
The negligence arises from Turkish government treating mines as an afterthought and focusing more on money and accruing power, according to Sazak. Soma’s mining accident reminds Sazak of Bangladesh’s Rana Center collapse because both involved treating laborers as “cheap and dispensable” tools instead of as human beings.
Sazak sees a problem that stems beyond the May 2014 incident. A focus on economic growth has led to “crony capitalism that substantially enriched both the politicians and their well-connected cronies.”
As the country continues climbing atop an unsteady support base, more accidents will happen. Turkey has suffered 1,308 mining fatalities since 2000, according to the local newspaper Turkish Weekly.
Turkey has the highest number of mining fatalities in the world, according to the Turkish Economy Policies Research Foundation. The Turkish local newspaper Zaman reports that coal mining is more dangerous than any other form of energy production; therefore, any other nation undertaking coal mining risks the death of its workers.
Fatal incidents are not an inevitable result of coal mining, however. Eric Roth, the Director of Aegean Metals Group Inc. in Canada, says that, “whilst underground coal mines are notoriously dangerous places, especially in view of the potential for the build up of explosive gases, the mining industry does have the technology and protocols to avoid this type of accident.”
Despite having the means to avoid catastrophe, many countries such as Turkey ignore the technology and protocols, in order to save money and time.
Chile is an example of how important safety protocols are. Even though the San Jose copper mine in Chile collapsed on August 5, 2010, all 33 trapped workers were successfully rescued after a landslide.
“We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us,” one miner famously scribbled on a rescue probe as it broke through the rubble into the San Jose mine’s emergency shelter. After 17 days, the men were too weak to shout.
The existence of an emergency shelter with food and water reserves, an aspect of Chile’s mining law, helped keep the miners alive as the rescue team worked from above. Not every country requires a bunker like Chile’s; this legal detail saved many workers and many reputations.
Though a rescue ladder would have saved them sooner if it had been completed, Chile remains a success story in the mining industry.
In response, President Sebastian Piñera was quick to create a Workplace Safety Commission, going beyond regulating to ensuring legitimate enforcement. In addition, the Chile Mining and Energy Ministry funneled more government funding into safety inspections across the country by hiring 27 more inspectors. Since 60 percent of Chile’s exports come from the copper industry, stability in the mining industry is crucial to the nation’s economy.
Since the mining industry is expanding in every continent, mining regulations should be standardized worldwide. In Turkey alone, mining generates 2.5 billion U.S. dollars for the Turkish economy and provides work to almost a million of its citizens.
Sazak envisions “enforcement of global human rights norms that are already in existence” with either “a system similar to a tribunal to resolve disputes” or “a European court of human rights having safety lawsuits.”
A global union such as the one Sazak envisions exists in the form of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Written in 1998 and adopted by 28 countries, ILO’s Convention 176 gives miners more freedom to object to unsafe conditions without fear of retribution.
Özgur Özel, the deputy of the Turkish Republican People’s Party (CHP) and parliamentary representative for Soma-Manisa, pushed for the Turkish government to sign Convention 176. Prescient, Özel warned about government negligence even before the Soma mining disaster. He famously held up a mining hardhat in front of the Turkish Parliament to advocate for workers’ safety just two weeks before the Soma accident. Özel still hopes Turkey will sign Convention 176.
Along with changes in the law, Özel calls for social change: “The government officials have constantly referred to these deaths as the ‘fate’ of the mining work. We have to wake up from this deep sleep we are in with regards to subcontracting and unsafe working. We owe this to the lives we lost.”
Özel urges governments to focus more on their people. Working now to create better and more specific laws to protect Turkish miners, Özel cites Germany and the United States as examples to follow. Germany has a multi-pronged system of safety checks to prevent accidents and keep both humans and the environment in mind. The United States carefully manages the land itself; by keeping the land clean and safe, the U.S. makes mining less dangerous.
Additional focus should go towards technological advancement, reducing the reliance of human labor to the most dangerous aspects of the mining industry.
After stabilizing their national regulations, Turkey and other countries that have yet to support miners’ health can then convene to create likeminded international reform. But as Sazak cautions, “words don’t enforce themselves.” Along with standardizing law, the international community must standardize honesty and integrity to make sure those laws are actually upheld.
Aliza Goldberg is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.