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Rescuers find more bodies after blast in Russian mine

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

NOVOKUZNETSK, Russia -- Rescuers found five more bodies Tuesday in a Siberian coal mine rocked by a methane gas explosion, raising the death toll to 105 in Russia's deadliest mining disaster in a decade.

Some 200 workers were in the Ulyanovskaya mine in the coal-rich Kuznetsk Basin region at the time of the blast, which occurred early Monday at a depth of about 885 feet, emergency and regional officials said.

Emergency officials put the death toll at 105, with five still missing; 93 have been rescued.

Company officials and safety experts, along with a British citizen and his interpreter, were in the mine examining a British-made hazard monitoring system just before the blast, said Sergei Cheremnov, a spokesman for the regional government in Kemerovo, where the mine is located. The Briton, identified as Ian Robertson, and the interpreter were killed, and regional Gov. Aman Tuleyev said about 20 top mine staff, including the chief engineer, were among the dead.

Robertson was an employee of the British-German mining consultancy IMC, said Sergei Nikishichev, an official at the company's Moscow office.

President Vladimir Putin sent Tuleyev a telegram asking him to convey his sympathy to relatives of the dead and support for the injured survivors, and said he was ordering an investigation of the accident, according to the Kremlin.

The coal mine in Novokuznetsk, about 1,850 miles east of Moscow, is operated by Yuzhkuzbassugol, an affiliate of Russian coal and steel company Evraz Group SA, which acquired a 50 percent stake in the company in 2005.

Company spokesman Eduard Sivtsov told Russian channel NTV that rescuers were checking a large section of the mine for survivors.

"Their work is complicated by a great number of obstructions," he said.

Industry in disrepair

The incident was the latest to highlight the precarious and hazardous state of Russia's mining industry, which fell into disrepair when government subsidies dried up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At least 30 workers died in Russian mining accidents last year, including 25 in a fire at a Siberian gold mine. A blast at a mine on the outskirts of Novokuznetsk killed 47 workers in 2004, and a methane explosion at a mine in the city killed 67 in 1997.

In recent years, conglomerates such as Evraz SA have bought coal mines and similar enterprises and consolidated their operations, selling raw and semi-processed material to steel smelters, electricity producers and other major industries. Some government officials have accused private companies of cutting corners on safety to save money.

According to the Evraz Web site, Yuzhkuzbassugol was Russia's leading producer of coking coal.

Alexander Sergeyev, chairman of the Independent Coal Miners' Union, said the Ulyanovskaya mine operated with new equipment, but he said that human and natural factors always created the potential for accidents. He said miners may have encountered a pocket of methane while working.

"It's necessary, in my view, to pass legislation forbidding underground coal mining without the required (ventilation) from the surface for methane," he told Ekho Moskvy radio.

Sergeyev also blamed the blast on quota systems that encourage miners to work faster and harvest more coal, potentially leading to careless and fatal errors.

Tuleyev was quoted by ITAR-Tass as saying that families of the dead would each receive at least $25,000 as compensation.


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