A mining disaster in the Russian city of Magnitogorsk Friday claimed the lives of at least nine workers and injured more than 100 others.
The mine was full of coal when the methane gas exploded. The workers died when they made an attempt to escape the fire, Russian officials said. A nearby coal-fired power plant exploded as the explosion set off a second major blast.
The circumstances of the disaster have left mining officials confused and scrambling to respond. Russia’s culture of rapid improvement in the wake of tragedy is leading to gaps in safety.
The Mine Safety and Health Agency claimed that procedures at the mine had been tightly regulated, but officials said that if the company’s protocols were not followed and the crews panicked in a rush to evacuate, then they were responsible. And officials said the fire might have been extinguished years earlier by the lack of adequate equipment.
U.S. federal mining inspectors have not been told what prompted the blast but quickly indicated that there was a lack of oversight of safety at the Magnitogorsk mine and a number of other Russian mines. They are especially concerned by safety concerns at mines servicing Russia’s military.
“In the last five years, these mine operators have shown a rather great willingness to address safety,” said Steve Weber, of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a research organization that studies the energy sector. “There’s been progress, but a lot more is still needed. It comes back to people making investments where they are warranted.”
Magnitogorsk had experienced setbacks in 2014. The mine had a number of violations, including one that was pointed out by a federal regulator after an explosion that killed 23 people and injured 29 more. In addition, the mine had been operating for 30 years without a complete safety inspection, officials said. A 2015 safety inspection had found 11 violations, but cited a lack of personnel instead of a lack of oversight.
“The situation in the mining industry remains unsatisfactory,” Maxim Chaly, head of the Black Sea Mining Ministry department, wrote in a post-accident news release.
Magnitogorsk has one of the largest coal resources in Russia, worth more than 3 billion tons. Since 2014, the mine has had three major accidents, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee, and each time the mine has paid a heavy price, with at least 100 injured and at least nine dead.
In 2014, a methane explosion killed eight people, injured 17 and closed the mine for about a year. In 2015, the miner found a series of dead bodies on the surface of the cave-in. The 2015 disaster was so deadly that it prompted Russia’s trade minister to visit Magnitogorsk and the nearby mine, considered the most hazardous, and stop to talk to miners and mine workers, according to a report by the mining ministry.
In addition to its difficulty making safety compliance, the Russian mining industry is experiencing other challenges. There have been disputes about how much the mines are paying workers, and workers have complained about insufficient safety equipment, including safety glasses and mining helmets, according to Russian reports.