'The pressure for more production was an invitation for the Soma disaster'

Yazan: Harun Şahnacı - Güventürk Görgülü

An engineer from Soma Mining Inc. talked to HaberVs about the negligence chain behind the disaster*

Mehmet Utkan (25) is a mining engineer (M.Sc.). He is employed as an “underground engineer” in the mine operated by Soma Holding, specializing in safety. During the incident, however, he was off-duty in Istanbul. As soon as he received the news, he returned to Soma. Utkan says that the number of fatalities reported to them by noon was over 400.

Is it true that the fire in the mining zone was caused by an electric panel?
Another rumor claims that an oxygen over-flow caused it… In this kind of situation, one thing can lead to another. Oxygen may be the starting trigger, but the main cause in this particular case was the usage of old, non-fireproofed material in the electric panel. Because of that, flying sparks ignited the coal. Since the temperature was increased by this initial conflagration, the coal was burned along with the oxygen. Average carbon monoxide levels reached 600-700 ppm (parts per million), and even worse, up to 1200 ppm in some areas. Such carbon monoxide concentrations would definitely be fatal. Most of the miners suffocated because of that. It is better to describe their death as poisoning, rather than suffocation. Perhaps 99 per cent died this way, but I've heard that a number of people were burnt. I am sharing with you what I've heard up to now.

“The origin of the fire was either the electric panel or the ignition of coal”

What exactly is the source of negligence here?

The negligence here is as follows: suppose that you always concentrate on productivity. You control a system, involving many electrical machines. You keep using them, which requires the ventilation system and conveyor belt to work constantly, which, of course, causes an electrical load and an electric arc. All of these practices exemplify adopting the wrong mentality. Mining engineers are assigned to work with two types of tasks. One of those tasks is safety and the other one is production. Those assigned to production work in a more mechanical way. Those assigned to safety, however, should be able to halt the process anywhere in the mine as they see fit or according to regulations, which we do not have. [At this mine, however,] we usually could stop the process, even if the process is outside of safety boundaries. Our predictions were not taken into account either. They usually disregarded when we would say “otherwise, this and that will happen.” As a result, such an event took place, as predicted.

Was it the case that the electric panel caught fire because of the overload?

Since we did not witness the events, we can only speculate. There are two possibilities: Firstly, electric cables might have melted because of overload and contact between the cables may have caused an electric arc. Secondly, the coal might have caught fire due to external reasons, which is very likely because of the high monoxide levels, and that may have led to the cables melting, in turn resulting in the arc. In any case, the main factor was likely the cables and the material used in their manufacture.

“Inspectors are bribed”

You are working at the safety department of the mine. What is the procedure in case the safety limits are exceeded? What has to be done?

Yes, I am in the safety department. In case of an emergency, production must be stopped immediately and people have to be evacuated. That is the necessary procedure. As you know, since the legislation in Turkey is intended for covering up the mess instead of taking measures,
security chiefs provide reports, and the operation manager, who is responsible for both safety and production, makes decisions according to those reports. This is the consequence of the fact that the work safety experts are paid by the company itself. The inspections are substandard. Inspectors from the Ministry of Labor are bribed. There are many witnesses to this. After all this, I wonder how many inspectors will do their job properly: going down to the tunnels, taking and examining samples, checking the instruments, checking if the cables are adequate for safety, auditing the production parameters, checking the machines, seeing if their production capacities have been exceeded etc. And I will be there waiting to see if they do their job properly. I do not believe they did in the past. Because they send those people here as experts, as people who are supposed to be experienced enough to see what has been happening around. Of course, we see that they are experienced in accepting bribes too.

“The inspections are conducted by invitation, when they should have been done without any notification”

Aren't you afraid to talk about these matters?

After all that has happened, I am done with the mining industry. I’ve lost my closest friends here; it is not like I’m going to be afraid of the bosses, neither the managers nor the government. My heart is aching, I won’t ask for permission to talk, after all this. The very government that was responsible for my safety has failed, who else should I be afraid of?

How often do the routine ministry inspections happen?

Ministry inspections are conducted once every three or six months. In a general inspection, they take a look at the workshop and, they climb down [into the mine]. And once every three months, junior inspectors come and see if things are operating as they should down there. Of course, they climb down, they visit only two shafts and then go back up again.

And apart from that, let me tell you this: the inspections are supposed to be conducted without notice. However, one week before the arrival of the inspector, I already know where he will stay. Inspections are supposed to be like raids. Here, they are conducted by invitation. The problem is extensive because the business is run like this.

“The number of deaths has surpassed 400”

How is it possible that the number of people inside is not known? How large is the place?

The records taken from the Lamphouse say it was 450, but I don`t think it is the exact number. In mining, you leave your employee cards when you take your lamp to go underground. Your daily wage is calculated according to your card. In other words, your wage is bound to whether you take a lamp or not that day. Some friends don’t take the lamps themselves, they have it picked up by someone else and that’s why it is hard to know the exact number. However, we know that it is above 450. So far the confirmed number is above 400. These are the figures that people are talking about.

There are rumors that 15 year old children were inside. Is there such a practice of employing child labor? Have you ever witnessed such a thing?
No, there is no such thing. This is an exaggeration, a misinformation. It is in my upbringing to be honest about someone's mistakes, but I would not want to wrongfully accuse anyone. I know the people who worked with me there, none of them are as young as 15.

“Subcontractors leave coal behind”

What is the labor structure like? What is the percentage of subcontracted labor? What is the percentage of those who have insurance?

I am not well informed about the numbers, but the essential problem is not the percentage of subcontracted workers, it is rather how the production process was mainly administered by subcontractors. Here, the subcontractor had more power than the engineer. Coal has the property of spontaneous combustion. The type of coal here at Soma is very prone to spontaneous combustion, due to its composition. The subcontracting system here did not operate on the basis of tonnage or production yield. The subcontractors were paid on the basis excavation progress, that is, on the distance excavated. And most subcontractors –I have witnessed this myself– leave some coal behind in the sections left open for air circulation, where no further excavation was due to take place. That remaining coal, which is exposed to oxygen, can spontaneously combust. We saw that our instructions and protocol were not being followed, especially by the subcontractors. Of course, the workers who were employed directly by the company did not have the opportunity to not follow our instructions, but the subcontractor and their workers did not take our protocol seriously. When we inspected the mine at the end of the day, we would observe that our instructions had often been ignored. So the reason for this non-compliance was not a technical glitch, but it was due to the concerns of the subcontractor for their wallets.

So there has always been a friction between you and the subcontractors…
Sure, this is a common problem. Management does not want to reflect these issues to the higher levels of administration. Management always “gets by.” Subcontractors offer a template; management fills it in and gets on with it. This is the case here as well. So they are not primarily concerned about human life. As I said before, usually the problem is the way that subcontractors were awarded their commission. We are careful not to leave any coal behind. Subcontractors on the other hand aim for the distance they cover in one day. For instance, to cover more distance, they dig one meter of base plane. Normally we dig all the coal under our
feet out of this base in order to prevent base swelling, this is called “base scraping”. At this stage, subcontractors don't care about the tonnage of the excavated coal, or the expansion of the area. They only scrape 20 centimeters of base plane and move on; they report that “we have scraped 10 meters further ahead”, and leave coal behind. In other words, since they get their commission according to the distance they covered instead of the volume of production, coal remains behind and is prone to burn. This is the main problem.

There were subcontracted workers amongst the dead too, weren’t there?
Of course there were. But their ratio is not important. Both the subcontracted workers and ordinary workers have the same blue ID cards. They are not the ones to blame. The ones I blame are the small-time bosses out on the ground. They are the ones who push them [the subcontracted workers] to do this. If someone is offered an option to better his financial situation, you cannot accuse him of agreeing to it. We need to look for those who were the real cause, who calculated the equation, who penned this script and put it before them. The system of subcontracting is to blame, not the subcontractor. We need to blame those who administer this system. Those who said “Let me take money from the big bosses for the elections, and I’ll facilitate subcontracting for them in return”, they are the guilty ones here. They are guilty, those who said “I’ll provide them an ample field for this”. You [the government] went ahead and passed a memorandum in June, giving away mining areas for bargain discounts. Who were the buyers? Those who received the licenses are always their own men, their relatives, people with whom they exchange bribes. This is the shameful system that we live in. I do not even blame the bosses anymore. I blame the crooked politicians who claim that they are statesmen, who claim that they are approaching the public with conscience, in keeping with the solemnity of statesmanship. If they were truly conscientious and quit telling lies, everything could be resolved. But for that to happen properly raised and educated people are needed, and we cannot even accomplish that anymore. We lost that culture. We reap what we sow.

“The level of carbon monoxide has risen in the first two hours”

Is there any chance of survival for the workers trapped below?

Right now, they are trying to save them by directing the air flow from one section to the other section in parts, since the fire is still ongoing. They direct the flow of the carbon monoxide by establishing ventilation doors. That is the method in use, because, right now, it really is merely an effort of bringing out the corpses.

So there is no hope?
Unfortunately, it has been confirmed [that there is no hope] 90 per cent, and that there are no further survivors. We have reached this estimation because there are survivors from all areas inside the mine, and those friends [who made it out] have been saying that the others in there could not be rescued. When the direction of airflow was changed, the ratio of carbon monoxide increased too much. Therefore, the chance of survival for our friends who are still in there is very low.

What are you going to do after this?

I will never let those [responsible] live in peace, for I’ve been hurt. By “never let them live in peace”, I do not mean that I’ll do anything illegal or something. I will talk. I will prepare a scientific report. I will display the levels of carbon monoxide and methane, and will relate those to the increase in production – as, indeed, the production was increased tremendously in the last two months. Overcoming all obstacles, I will demonstrate that this was a mistake. Because many people who were like brothers to me, let alone friends, died here. All of them worked for peanuts, for 5 Turkish liras per hour! I will put up a fight for this.

Was the production increased too much as of late?

Productivity has been the main focus. If you make productivity your main focus, the emphasis on the safety regulations decreases relative to that. The problems arise when you prioritize production. And those problems had increased beyond what could be compensated for. After that stage, accidents do occur. A capacity for production has been calculated, and a certain performance level has been reached, once you step over those limits, you have to start prioritizing safety back again. This was not done, and hence the result.

*HaberVesaire May 14, 2014

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