MOSCOW – In the days leading up to his death in a mine explosion in Russia’s coal-rich Kouzbass region, Boris Piyalkin lamented that safety standards at his workplace were inadequate.
“He sat down and cried, and was just scared,” said Anzhelika Piyalkina, Mr. Piyalkin’s daughter-in-law, who had spent three decades working as a miner but was increasingly concerned about the conditions under which he was asked to work.
Mr Piyalkin, who was 55, was one of 46 miners and six rescuers killed Thursday by the Listvyazhnaya mine explosion in Belovo, about 2,200 miles east of Moscow and two hours south of Kemerovo. The accident happened after a ventilation shaft began to fill with gas as 285 people were underground, officials said.
Mr. Piyalkin’s wife, Inna Piyalkina, in a widely distributed video in Russian media, said he had reported that methane levels at the mine were “skyrocketing.” She added, “My husband came home from work every day and said it wasn’t going to end well.”
The tragedy, Russia’s worst mining accident in more than a decade, was a reminder of the country’s poor protections for workers and its increased dependence on coal mining.
As Western countries seek to reduce the use of fossil fuels, Russia, which accounts for more than 16 percent in the global coal trade, is the world’s third largest exporter of coal, behind Australia and Indonesia. This year, Russia increased its production by 10%.
Video taken outside the mine showed grieving women who had lost loved ones in the disaster walking along the snow in sub-zero temperatures. One woman said to another, “Everyone knew, everyone knew there was methane, what now? We will recover the bodies, but will they return more than 40 children, husbands and sons?
The mine manager was taken into custody, along with five other administrators. But prosecutors are also looking into potential abuse from watchdogs who were supposed to inspect the mine to check safety standards.
An anonymous official of the technical oversight body that oversees mines in the region Recount Russian state news agency TASS reported that the mine’s methane sensor did not record a violation of the maximum allowable concentration.
Mikhail Y. Fedyaev, managing director of SDS-Coal, the operator of the Listvyazhnaya mine, said on Friday that the company would pay amounts ranging from 1 million to 2 million rubles, or about $ 13,200 to $ 26,500, to the family of every victim who died and 500,000 rubles to every person hospitalized as a result of injuries sustained in Thursday’s crash, which followed a series of violations reported at the mine this year.
Rostekhnadzor, the government’s ecological, technological and nuclear watchdog, has suspended work in sections of the Listvyazhnaya mine nine times this year due to various violations, wrote watchdog spokesman Andrei Vil. on the Telegram messaging app.
He said specialists from the watchdog had carried out 127 inspections of various sections of the mine since the start of the year, identified 914 violations and fined Listvyazhnaya more than 4 million rubles.
A investigation by Rostekhnadzor in April 2021 noted multiple irregularities, including faulty methane sensors, a lack of sensors for early detection of fires in part of the mine, faulty doors in a ventilation structure, and employees lacking training on the air-gas control system.
However, Russia’s commission of inquiry, the country’s main investigative authority, has also opened a case against local inspectors for alleged negligence. The committee said the two state primary inspectors whose job it was to Ensuring the safety of the ventilation ducts did not conduct a planned inspection and falsified a report the week before the accident that said the site was up to standard.
SDS-Coal is the third largest coal extractor and exporter in Russia. Mr. Fedyaev, the managing director, owns 95 percent of his parent company, and his son Pavel is a representative in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, The father is one of the richest people in Russia.
In 2020, the company produced 28.2 million tonnes of coal and plans to increase that figure to 32 million tonnes by 2035. About 97% of the coal is for export, but a spokesperson for the company has not made its customer list public.
Work at the mine is halted until further notice, said Tatyana Dimenko, spokeswoman for the facility. She declined to comment on plans to improve the safety of minors or whether someone would be fired due to the crash.
Experts say accidents like the Listvyazhnaya one are inevitable, as Russia seeks to extract as much coal as possible before phasing it out, as the country gradually shifts to renewable energy sources. Between 2007 and 2017, Russia increased its coal supply fivefold and its exports to China 24 times, according to the Ministry of Economy.
Coal prices hit record highs in October, and companies have sought to capitalize on them.
“The reason Russia has increased its coal export targets for the next ten years is that it hoped to seize this window,” from the increased demand for coal from countries like China and India, said Nicholas Birman-Trickett, energy analyst covering Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Industry profit margins are high and growing due to the current energy crisis in Europe and China. However, Birman-Trickett said, because of the bleak outlook for the long-term outlook for the coal industry, businesses and local governments have been reluctant to invest in aging and therefore often dangerous mining infrastructure.
“This is sheer negligence,” MK Aleksandr Sergeyev, president of the Independent Union of Russian Miners, told the newspaper on Friday. “There is a problem with respect to safety rules by owners and management. And now they are putting the blame on the workers again. It is a systemic problem when people do anything for profit. “
In recent months, Russia has struggled to export its coal quickly enough. The Baikal-Amur Railway, which connects Eastern Siberia with the Russian Far East, is being extended as one of the largest ongoing infrastructure projects in the country, with the aim of export more coal.
The Kemerovo region is home to half of the coal produced in Russia, as well as many of its worst mining accidents. In May 2010, 66 people were killed in an explosion at the country’s largest underground coal mine, Raspadskaya, caused by a build-up of methane.
The region has also been the scene of growing discontent with the government, and local residents say companies seem to put profit above the well-being of the people.
In March 2018, a shopping center fire in the region killed 60 people, including 37 children. A court found that the mall owners and managers ignored fire safety rules to save money.
The event sparked anger against the national and regional government, including days of protest, prompting Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to travel to Kemerovo to lay flowers at a memorial dedicated to the deceased.
Today, the anger against businesses and authorities in the region is still palpable there.
“The company which only needs coal is to blame,” Inna Piylakina, in mourning for her husband, told reporters outside the mine. “Human life is not appreciated.”
Oleg Matsnev and Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.