On Tuesday, May 3, three miners lost their lives in an accident in Grupo Mexico’s Buenavista del Cobre mine in Cananea. Javier Villarreal Gámez, the Secretary General of the Metallurgical Miners’ Worker’s Union released a statement that same day to confirm that authorities suspect the accident to have been provoked by human error. The incident involved a pick-up truck containing mining workers Hanssel Guadalupe Suárez Sarmiento, Germán Bernardo Acevedo Carrera, and Fabián Villa Caro, and some heavy duty tractors. However, the investigation is ongoing and Grupo Mexico could still face a fine if found to be in violation of any codes or standards.
The industry as a whole has refocused its priorities in recent years in an effort to prevent fatalities in the notoriously dangerous industry. Nevertheless, accidents happen, and below, we examine the worst mining incidents of the last century.
US: During 2006, one of the worst mining disasters in the country occurred with an explosion and methane leak at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, US. Thirteen miners were trapped inside the mine and all but one eventually succumbed to carbon monoxide and methane poisoning. An investigation was held by the House of Representatives and it found that several factors were to blame, including the use of foam “Omega blocks” to seal the mine as opposed to the required concrete blocks contributed to the disaster.
Chile: In January 2006, an explosion was caused in a Copiapó mine by a collision of two trucks. Seventy miners were trapped underground for seven hours, and ultimately, there were two fatalities.
Australia: The Beaconsfield Mine collapse in Tasmania in April 2006 sparked one of the most famous rescue attempts in history, with two miners trapped in a cage underground for 14 days before they were finally freed. The collapse was said to be caused by poor safety standards, removal of supports and cement, and inadequate worker training. One man, Larry Knight, was killed in the collapse.
China: In one of a number of mining accidents that left 4,749 dead by the end of 2006, Nanshan Colliery experienced an explosion in November that killed 24 workers. The cause of the explosion was reported to be a lack of training on the correct use of explosives, as well as the fact that the mine lacked a safety license.
Poland: Poland experienced the worst mining disaster in its history at the Halemba Coal Mine in November, an incident that claimed the lives of 23 workers. The cause of the collapse of the shaft was a methane explosion. In March the same year, the tunnel was scheduled for closure due to the discovery of dangerously high concentrations of methane, yet the mine remained active.
Russia: In one of Russia’s biggest mining disasters, 108 miners died after a methane blast occurred at a depth of 270m in the Ulyanovskaya Mine in March. Five mine inspectors were dismissed after it emerged that safety equipment had been deliberately tampered with to decrease methane readings and therefore increase production rates.
Tanzania: Heavy rainfall triggered the collapse of several mines in the Merarani mining hills in March, and flooding later hampered rescue efforts. Eighty five people were reported to be trapped, and later confirmed dead.
Romania: In November, two gas explosions at a mine in Petrila claimed the lives of nine miners and four emergency workers. After the incident, many family members complained that they were not kept informed of the developments, and were unaware of whether family members were still alive.
China: There was an explosion in the Heilongjiang Mine in November that claimed 108 lives. The explosion was caused by a combination of trapped, pressurized gas and poor ventilation in the mine shaft and was so intense that it could be felt six miles away. After the investigation reported that poor management was to blame, the mine’s Director and two other senior members of staff were dismissed.
Turkey: A methane gas explosion caused the entire underground chamber of a mine shaft to collapse in an incident in Bursa Province in December that killed 19 miners. Rescue efforts were impaired by the need to re-erect supports to reach trapped miners, as well as by high levels of flammable gas.
US: Twenty nine men died in one of the US’ worst disasters in the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, caused by a coal dust explosion. After major health and safety violations were uncovered in an independent investigation, the mine’s operator, Massey Energy was adjudicated to be directly responsible.
Chile: In an infamous tale that united the global mining community, “the 33” were trapped in the San José underground mine in the Atacama Desert for over two months from August to October after a cave-in. During rescue efforts, several shortcomings were discovered in the mine, including the absence of mandatory escape ladders in the ventilation shafts that could have allowed the miners to escape sooner. Incredibly, all 33 miners were rescued and later filed lawsuits against the San Esteban Mining Company citing poor safety standards.
Turkey: In May, 30 miners died when a firedamp explosion caused a coal mine to collapse in the Zonguldak Province. Turkey’s Prime Minister responded to protests about the safety conditions of mines as a “provocation” and declared that that incidents of this kind are “the fate of this profession”.
UK: After miners set off a routine explosion at the Gleision Colliery in Wales in September, the tunnel they were working in began to fill with water, resulting in the loss of four lives. The owner of the mine, MNS Mining, and the mine manager were charged with four counts of manslaughter, but were later acquitted. A health and safety report has been published by the UK Government on the incident.
China: August saw an explosion in the Xiaojiawan coal mine in the Sichuan province that led to the deaths of 45 people. This was the result of a gas explosion and it was later reported that 16 of the victims died from carbon monoxide poisoning. The owners of the mine were subsequently detained pending an investigation.
China: Eighty three fatalities were reported after a landslide trapped the workers in the Gyama Mine in Tibet in March. A number of natural factors were cited as the cause of the incident, including the location of the mine within a steep valley and snowfall within the area. Online claims of excessive mining in the area were quickly removed.
Central African Republic: Another natural disaster caused the collapse of a Ndassima gold mine in June, with heavy rains compromising the structure, causing 52 deaths. Just a year later, after the mine was illegally taken over by rebels, another collapse caused the death of 25 artisanal miners, with authorities citing a failure by the rebels to follow appropriate regulations.
Turkey: The Soma Mining Disaster was the worst incident in Turkey’s history, after an explosion triggered an underground blaze, resulting in the deaths of 301 people, although some claim that the actual toll is more than 340. Many actors pointed to Turkey’s long history of poor mine security as the cause for the accident.
Bosnia & Herzegovina: An earthquake measuring 3.5 on the Richter scale hit the town of Zenica in September, provoking a cave-in of the Raspotočje coal mine, and trapping 34 miners inside. Five deaths were reported from the incident.
Ukraine: A gas explosion reportedly caused a mining accident at the Zasyadko coal mine in Eastern Ukraine. While 23 were confirmed dead, local rebels that held the region claimed that the total deaths reached 30. The controversy surrounding the official toll was due to the fact that Ukranian police and rescue services were not given access to the mine.
Brazil: In November, Brazil’s worst environmental disaster came in the form of a burst tailings dam that buried a nearby village, polluted Rio Doce, and continued to the Atlantic Ocean, threatening its ecosystem. In the process, 19 people were killed. The mine’s owner BHP Billiton and its partners Vale and Samarco now face a lawsuit demanding US$30 billion in compensation from the Brazilian authorities.
Russia: It was only the second month of 2016 before Russia saw its first mining accident of the year, which resulting in the deaths of 36 people. A series of explosions, the cause of which is believed to be a methane leak, caused the accident at the mine near Vorkuta.
Mining safety rates have not been stringently documented, meaning that is it difficult to measure those countries with the highest and lowest number of fatalities related to oversights. However, the Turkish mining industry has been identified as that with the worst safety record in the world, using the “deaths per million tons of coal production” gauge. Nonetheless, as has been displayed, even the most heavily regulated countries like the UK, the US, and Australia have experienced their share of mining tragedies, showing the inherent dangers involved in the industry. The good news is that, in recent years, operators have become far more conscious of the importance of safety regulations, and for the first time, have begun to prioritize worker safety over production and profits.