Coal’s death tally goes far beyond Turkish mine

Think about the last time you got to the top of a mountain one mile high. Now think about descending that distance below the surface of the earth, foot by dark foot, far below all life, light or oxygen. You go down there to dig.

What you’re digging for, deep in the hot, fetid, bowels of the earth, is carbonized life forms, millions of years in the making, turned to a type of rock that ignites and burns; one that your prime minister and energy analysts tell you will help the economic future of your country.

But you don’t go there primarily to dig or because it’s going to expand the economy. It’s much more personal than that—and much less voluntary. You go there because you have to; because it’s how you survive. Or, in the twisted parlance of the day, in a country where mining deaths are a regular occurrence, it’s how you “make a living.” Digging is just something you do as a means to another end.

How else would there be over 92,000 people from your country, ready to make that descent every day? Knowingly entering such an alien, inherently dangerous environment, where invisible, odorless, colorless, poisonous and explosive gases lurk? Where death and injury are a constant risk, in a country where the death rate among miners is higher than in China; a country where, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute, miners suffered over 13,000 injuries in 2013 alone.

The death toll from Turkey’s latest horrifying mining catastrophe, one of the worst industrial tragedies in recent world history, has risen above 300—all human beings who were there to “make a living.” The disaster affects every single one of the 100,000 residents of the nearby town of Soma—from which many of the miners hail and where coal mining is all there is left after neoliberal policies devastated agriculture and other aspects of the local economy.

In the face of such all-encompassing and sudden calamity befalling a community, there are certain responses one could expect from any member of the human species.

The first is to express the most basic of human emotions: sympathy, empathy and deep sadness for the tragic loss of life. To his eternal shame, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, by its initials in Turkish), which is heavily connected to private mining interests, couldn’t even manage that.

Rather than offering his heartfelt condolences to the injured and their relatives, friends and comrades, desperately searching for glimmers of hope in the darkness, and news of their loved ones, he despicably minimized the horrifying loss of life by comparison to century and a half-old mining disasters in Britain and claimed “these accidents are usual.” There’s simply no excuse one can conjure for such cold-hearted contempt for the working people of Turkey. Particularly as Erdoğan was reiterating a similarly callous sentiment from 2010, after 30 miners lost their lives in an explosion in a mine near Zonguldak city: “Death is the destiny of the miners”.

In another display of staggering insensitivity, but further proof of how inconsequential are the lives of Turkish miners to those who rule the country, energy minister Taner Yıldız, who heaped praise on the mine only last year, initially said that for the Soma explosion the “death toll figures are not important.”

The second response, if you’re in a position to do so, is to rush as many resources as possible to the scene of the tribulation and chaos of an exploding mine that trapped hundreds of miners underground. One thing you don’t do, is minimize the disaster, claiming at first that it was only a minor accident, then dispatching thousands of armed members of the state; not to help with the rescue effort, but to put down the protests of miners and their families enraged by government insensitivity.

The fury of Turkish workers and their allies is fully justified against a prime minister who had to seek shelter in a supermarket as angry protesters vented their wrath against his visit to the region. A prime minister who’s parliamentary aid was filmed kicking a protester who was on the floor being held down by police. On Friday, as desperate rescue efforts continued, police fired volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and used water cannon on demonstrators carrying banners reading “It was not an accident, it was murder”, as protests erupted across Turkey in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Zonguldak after it was reported that the mine has a history of problems, was short of carbon monoxide detectors and in some places was using wood instead of metal to shore up tunnel ceilings. Turkish media cited a 2010 report by the Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers (TMMOB), which warned of serious safety problems at the Soma mines. Among the issues mentioned were inadequate ventilation systems, a lack of pre-warning mechanisms and faulty wall supports.

Who uses riot police at a demonstration in support of mine safety, after one of the most lethal industrial mining disasters in recent memory and the worst in Turkish history? Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, when visiting Soma was also heckled on arrival. A miner who refused to be named asked the key question: “Why does he come here with an army of police and security personnel?…These people come here with their nice suits and their ties, but no compassion for our suffering.”

Because, miners, their loved ones and supporters, are not just helpless victims who accept their fate, as Erdogan would have them. As a consequence of the precarious and dangerous nature of their work, and the collective solidarity that comes with it, they also fight with the utmost tenacity for one another. That was illustrated in the mine collapse at Copiapó, Chile, in 2010. The 33 miners, in the most terrifying of conditions and almost without any hope of rescue, organized themselves for survival underground by making detailed plans: how they would cooperate to conserve oxygen, water, food, light and give extra help to the less experienced among them, so that all of 33 emerged alive, after an incredible 69 days buried under 800,000 tons of rock.

For that reason, down through the ages, ordinary people of all nations have rallied to the banner of the miners, in their rage, grief and struggle for justice. We must do so again now. Standing shoulder to shoulder, and demand a full independent investigation, financial and all other help for the survivors, those responsible be held to account in a court of law, and if found guilty of negligence or cutting corners on health and safety, sent to jail.

Thus far, while the company which owns the mine has denied any culpability, highlighting their supposed attention to safety, 18 people from the company, including local executives, have been held by police for investigation into possible negligence. Any investigation must go much further and all the way to the top, to ensure that no such disaster can ever happen again.

Because, after the initial shock and pain, amidst the horror and heartbreak, and the attempts to rescue those who may still be trapped and alive, one begins to ask bigger questions about not just the immediate cause of the explosion, but the surrounding circumstances that led to it. The kind of questions the Turkish prime minister would rather not have people ask, let alone uncover answers to. To do so, as Erdogan accused furious protesters, is to “politicize” a supposedly non-political event; something that could not be foreseen: an unfortunate incident of fortune and fate. Erdogan, rebuked protesters, saying, “There are some groups, extreme elements, that want to abuse developments like this one. I would like to reiterate that, for the peace and unity of our nation, it is very, very important not to pay heed to them.”

But according to Professor Bengi Akbulut, member of the Political Ecology Working Group at Bogazici University, Istanbul, as soon as the rescue mission officially ended, it was followed by a de facto state-of-emergency level of repression: progressives, mostly lawyers and journalists who had been active supporters of different mobilizations in the last few years, from the Gezi Park protests, to informal workers’ organizational efforts, were put under custody in Soma. They were held in the town’s public gym. For Turks, this brings back haunted memories of the 1980 military coup, where in many cities municipal buildings, schools and gyms were turned into torture houses, as jails and police stations were already overflowing with the arrested and detained.

On Saturday, Akbulut, commenting on the repression said, “Some of my lawyer friends were harassed and detained and released yesterday, but today they have been taken en masse and I am very, very worried. Everyone from outside of Soma is being forced out of the city, if not detained.”

In a measure of how far the protests are spreading in a country rocked by two years of social upheaval, one of the major engineering schools’ mineral engineering dept. was occupied by students. This was followed by a wave of student occupations in other schools. Every night there is a sit-in and forum in front of the mining company’s headquarters in Istanbul.  The neighborhood forums that emerged after the Gezi Park protests have been key in organizing protests and occupations. 

In a sign of how much privatization of the mines, and the corporate hunt for profit takes humans to the deepest, darkest, most dangerous recesses of the earth, Akbulut further remarked:

There is so much misinformation or information you would not want to believe is true but deep down you know they are true because capitalism works that way. Like Syrian migrant workers being paid much lower and forced to work in the deepest levels of the mine, and no rescue effort ever reached to them; like parts of the mine that were closed off years ago under state ownership due to being too risky, have been reopened, and these parts were the ones that the migrants were forced to work in.

While we do not yet know the exact proximate cause of the explosion and fire, the contributing causes of the mining explosion in Soma go far wider than a simple, avoidable tragic accident, or individual political party. When one thinks of recent fossil energy related fatalities in North America – from the BP refinery fire in Texas in 1995, to the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010, or the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010 and the oil train derailment and explosion in the town of Lac-Megantic, Canada, in 2013, their is a pattern that emerges irrespective of political leaders or party’s.

Celeste Monforton, of George Washington University School of Public Health, and a leading mine safety expert noted: “The profit motive that is the foundation of market-based industries can influence the safety behavior of companies…In our most recent major coal mine disaster in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch coal mine [in which 29 miners were killed], the surviving workers said that production pressure played a major role in the disaster. This, despite the company’s claim that safety was their number one priority.”

According to a 2010 report by the Turkish economic research foundation, TEPAV, for every one million tonnes of coal extracted from below the surface of the earth, the cost is 7.2 dead workers. The comparable statistic for China, a country notorious for its mistreatment of workers, is 1.27 dead workers per tonne of coal. The Turkish mining industry as a whole was responsible for over 10% of workplace injuries in 2012.

The Soma mine was privatized in 2005, part of a rolling series of government-backed privatizations that has seen 90% of the state sector transferred into the hands of private corporations. Soma Komur Isletmeleri AS, the Istanbul-based company which employs over 5000 miners at Soma, in the western province of Manisa, has other commercial interests in construction and strong ties to the governing party. The wife of the general director of Soma Holding Company, Melike Doğru, was recently elected councilor in Manisa for the prime minister’s ruling party. Soma is also the company whose sacks of coal the ruling AKP party scandalously handed out during previous local elections as “charity coal” – to those who couldn’t afford to buy the very thing they were sent underground to mine.

Necdet Pamir, an energy expert affiliated with the main opposition party, was blunt in his assessment of why the explosion at Soma is part of a wider pattern of structural bias toward a culture of profit-at-all-costs business operations: “In reality the practice in Turkey is that under-qualified companies with ties to the government are winning the tenders…They are maximizing profits by cutting wages and safety measures, and this is the cause for tragedies such as Soma.”

Neoliberal orthodoxy dictates, despite all evidence to the contrary, that companies will adhere to health and safety regulations better if they are free from the restrictions of government oversight and compliance is made voluntary. The entirely predictable result of the frenzy of deregulation and privatization, along with the ensuing corruption, is a bottom-line culture where cuts to production costs are continually sought, in order to keep coal “cheap”.

For capitalists, driven by spreadsheets scrolling tables of corporate profit and loss, one of the most obvious places to start looking for reductions in costs and boosting profitability, is with the single largest factor: reductions in the pay, conditions and company spending on the health and safety of the workforce. The same TEPAV report cited earlier shows a clear discrepancy between deaths in publicly owned mines (4.41 miners/tonne of coal/year) where unions and government oversight are stronger, compared to privately owned mines (11.50 miners/tonne/coal/year). Since privatization, there has been a 40% increase in mining accidents. This grim statistic has been paralleled by truly spectacular savings for Soma Komur, as costs of mining coal have dropped from $120-130/tonne when under state control, versus $24/tonne today.

According to the Turkish publication Sendika, the subcontracting of untrained mining labor has been one of the biggest factors in reducing costs, along with a 2005 law, passed by the AKP, the Regulation on the Permissions for the Mining Activities. The law also legalized a royalty payment system, which increased mining concessions and allowed mine operators to go deeper into the earth. In the five years between 2005 and 2010, roughly 45,000 mining licenses were disbursed. Only two weeks ago a measure introduced into parliament by opposition members to investigate ongoing and repeated safety issues at the Soma mine was rejected by the majority of AKP deputies.

In response to such facts, rather than calling this an “accident”, union leaders in Turkey are calling the disaster in Soma “murder” and a “massacre”. As one woman and government worker in Soma declared, “They are lying to us. This was no accident. This was murder, plain and simple.” Who can say they are wrong? At what point does the culpability and virtual inevitability of industrial accidents turn from a tragic accident to an entirely avoidable example of the costs of doing business and putting profit before people?

Mining engineer and representative of Turkish mining union Maden-Is, Kenan Dikbiyik, quoted in the International Business Times, was very clear about the biggest factor contributing to the appalling and worsening safety record in Turkish mines; “With these mines, you can enter a mine, inspect it, everything is fine, and one hour later it explodes…This is why you cannot have profit be the main concern when exploiting them. This is why we believe privatizing them was an error. They should be nationalized.”

What, one might ask, perpetuating a system that sends men and minors (the youngest worker to die at Soma was 15) deep underground for pitiful wages, in bestial conditions reminiscent of the time of Charles Dickens? For there is an even larger question about the future development of humanity. The planned expansion of coal mining, and its associated costs, for which several hundred Turkish miners have paid the ultimate cost, has longer term impacts.

Not only will the earth swallow more hardworking sons, husbands and fathers in mining countries around the world at the behest of capitalist priorities, corporate malfeasance, and government negligence and corruption, but it threatens the air we breath and the atmospheric and climate stability of the entire planet. All while we know the answer and have the technology and resources to implement the solution, as yet another recent report illustrated.

As I have written elsewhere, the negative health impacts of burning coal, even without factoring in accidents at the coal face, or climate change, outweigh the economic benefits of mining and burning it.

Furthermore, a 2010 study by the National Academy of Sciences, entitled The Hidden Costs of Energy, calculated that the damage to human health, grain crops, timber yield, buildings and recreation activities from coal burning in the United States, was estimated in 2005 to amount to $62 billion. According to the US Labor Dept., in 2012, coal mining employed 137,000 workers. Not to say this would necessarily be the chosen option, but the cost to give a tax-free pension of $50,000 per year to all those miners, comes to $6.8 billion. Or just 10% of the unaccounted for costs of burning the coal in the first place.

Hence, we shouldn’t be mining for coal at all; in any country. For a host of reasons, but each one of them underlined once again with the blood of Turkish workers, the single most obvious energy source to declare an obsolete vestige of the 19th century, is coal mining and burning – for the deaths, the poisoning of the air we breath and the longer term impacts of climate change.

However, as elsewhere, there are even bigger forces at work in Turkey than just whether mines are state or privately owned, as mining is set for further expansion from the current 1.2% of the economy, worth $2.5 billion. Since 2002, when Erdogan came to power, the economy has quadrupled in size, catapulting a country, with a GDP now over $800 billion, in to the top 20 largest global economies (ignoring corporations of course). Erdogan’s stated aim, as expressed in a confident state visit to the United States showcasing Turkey’s newfound economic might, is to break into the top 10.

In a story similar to many parts of the developing world, while some statistics on poverty and employment have improved in Turkey, costs have risen, there is a massive and growing informal sector, low levels of education, massive discrepancies between male and female employment, and for many, the quality of life has declined as short-term, economically, socially and ecologically unsustainable, growth-boosting measures, have taken precedence over all else. New dams are being built with little regard for local populations or environmental impact, a giant new airport is projected for Istanbul, along with a new bridge across the Bosporus and a canal to run parallel to the strait.

In February, Turkey was praised as a huge new market to invest in by Daniel Dombey, writing in Foreign Affairs under the title “Where to Bet Now”. In October last year, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, declared that Turkey should be seen as “an inspiration to many developing countries.” With that stamp of official approval from the mandarins of international finance capital, Turkey’s growing economy, and its attractive lack of government oversight and neoliberal “flexibility” when it comes to labor and environmental laws, suck in not only profit hungry investors, but are accompanied by a voracious thirst for energy.

For a country that is predicted to require twice as much energy by 2023, yet imports 98% of its natural gas and 93% of its oil, Turkey’s extensive coal reserves are a natural place for the governing elite to want to further exploit and develop. According to energy minister Yildiz, the government plans to spend $118 billion on energy infrastructure in the next nine years, as Turkey seeks to become a regional energy hub and transit station, as more oil and gas pipelines are laid, the construction of nuclear power stations begins, and the expansion of coal mining continues, to help offset its $60 billion annual energy bill.

Sitting at the nexus of several geopolitical hotspots, the Turkish elite are well aware of the strategic location of their country and want to take full advantage of the oil and gas pipelines snaking through the country, as well as instability in the Ukraine and political uncertainty in the Middle East, as they seek closer ties with European capital and integration into the European Union. The ruling elite is committed to becoming a regional power and be at the epicenter of strategic energy decisions by surrounding global powers. To the north lie the gas-rich former Soviet Republics and Russia, to the east, the oil-rich but volatile Middle East, and to the west, the lucrative energy markets of Europe.

There is an alternative to the further burning of coal, the expansion of fossil fuel for energy with all the climate-related impacts and geopolitical maneuvering. But we will have to fight for it. And part of doing so is supporting the Turkish miners in their struggle for justice and safety.

Even in a socially just and ecologically sustainable society, the one we so urgently need, people will still have to go underground to furnish the raw materials to build wind turbines, solar panels and the other attributes of a society that has a higher technological development than the stone age. But the motivation, extent and type of mining and manufacture can and will all be different.

In a society worthy of being called civilized, we can make the health and safety of miners society’s highest priority, rather than the last. We can reuse metals from obsolete products rather than simply mine more, not to mention use less in the first place and practice conservation. We can make mining much more environmentally benign by having the workers themselves, and the surrounding community, democratically self-manage pits, tailing ponds, and the refining and manufacturing process, with the goal to maximize sustainability and minimize pollution. We can refuse the false dichotomy between having to choose between state control and private ownership, in order to manage, plan and work in a democratic and socially just, ecologically sustainable economy, by holding all factories, mines and farms in common. Such a vision would preclude the kind of horrific industrial “accidents” that are such a frequent and recurring feature of a society organized to maximize profit, by the unremitting exploitation of people and earth. Solidarity with the miners and people of Turkey!

Co-published with Socialist Worker.org.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission