‘We were sitting on a powder keg’ Two weeks before Russia’s deadliest mine accident in years, a ventilation shaft was crushed. Methane levels began to rise, but no one suspended production.

Maxim Kiselev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

A methane blast at the Listvyazhnaya coal mine in Siberia’s Kemerovo region killed 51 people on November 25. It was the deadliest mining accident Russia had seen since 2010. The explosion sent toxic smoke through the mine’s ventilation system, suffocating miners and rescue workers who came to their aid. But as miners at the Listvyazhnaya told Meduza, the mine’s methane levels had been critical for about two weeks beforehand, ever since a rock collapse “completely crushed” a ventilation shaft. The Listvyazhnaya’s management, however, opted against shutting down operations. According to the miners Meduza spoke to, their bosses were afraid they wouldn’t fulfill the production plan.

A bad start

The Listvyazhnaya coal mine employs 1,700 people. Located Gramoteino, a small town in Siberia’s Kemerovo region, it’s a major employer for several surrounding settlements. Speaking to journalists after the disaster on November 25, the Listvyazhnaya’s employees complained repeatedly that there’s practically nowhere else to work in the area — and miners interviewed by Meduza wanted to get back to doing their jobs, even now. 

The November blast wasn’t the first in the Listvyazhana coal mine’s history. A methane explosion caused by ventilation shortfalls killed 13 miners there in 2004. According to preliminary data from the investigation, the methane explosion on November 25 caused toxic smoke to spread through the mine’s ventilation system, suffocating miners working underground. 

The Listvyazhnaya mine has a main shaft that leads underground and three mine workings that branch off of it — these “longwall panels” are where the coal is mined. Two of them (longwalls #819 and #821) are no longer in commission; the ventilation drift of longwall #823 is presumably where the methane blast took place.

Longwall #823 opened not so long ago, in March 2021. It’s the deepest branch of the mine — and it was problematic from the get-go. Speaking to Meduza, miner Yuri Paranin recalled that in early 2021, tunnelers warned that the new panel would have higher methane levels than the old ones.

Nearly all the members of Paranin’s team were killed in the accident. He was also supposed to be working at the Listvyazhnaya on November 25, but he took sick leave a few days beforehand.

After longwall #823 opened, the methane levels in the mine really did begin to go up, and there was an especially strong increase in the last two months, Paranin said. “The gas was at 1–2 [percent]. But the ventilation was still normal,” asserted his colleague, Sergey Avdeev, who was also out sick on the day of the accident. 

The maximum permissible level of methane in the mine is 1 percent. If it goes any higher, the mine’s electricity is cut off automatically, and the miners must come back to the surface. However, miners from the Listvyazhnaya previously told RBC that their sensors were taped so that they wouldn’t be triggered by increased methane levels. Russian President Vladimir Putin also accused the mine’s management of “systematically” taking steps to “conceal the facts of excessive methane gas contamination” — citing certain documents from the Investigative Committee.

According to Russia’s environmental and technical watchdog, Rostekhnadzor, 127 inspections were carried out at the Listvyazhnaya coal mine in 2021, which uncovered a total of 900 violations. The mine’s operations were suspended nine times.

Of these 900 violations, 139 were identified in April 2021, during a planned inspection by Rostekhnadzor. Russian coal industry expert Anatoly Skryl, who analyzed the results of the inspection at Meduza’s request, said the audit found that even before the accident, longwall #823 had “inconsistent ventilation that led to the emergence of an explosive concentration of methane, which should not have been [there].”

‘Completely crushed’

Running along longwall #823 are two parallel drifts that provide ventilation. Fresh air enters the tunnel through the ventilation shaft and flows out through the conveyor, miners Yuri Paranin and Sergey Avdeev explained to Meduza.

But the initially problematic ventilation system got worse over time. About a month before the methane explosion, the ventilation drift that brought in fresh air started to get “compressed,” said miner Vladimir Chaykin. 

Having lost support from the coal bed, the overlying rock began pressing on the roof. Industry expert Anatoly Skryl explained it as follows: “When mining a longwall coal bed, the roof caves in behind it and the pressure on the overlying rock increases — especially in the zone where the longwall meets the ventilation and conveyor drifts.”

Rock collapses are frequent occurrences in mines, the specialist explained. When this happens, workers need to stop mining to clear the drift. Otherwise, gas builds up and all it takes is a spark to ignite an explosion, miners told Meduza. Anatoly Skryl also confirmed that in these situations, it’s necessary to stop production, restore ventilation, and prevent the accumulation of gas.

“We talked about this repeatedly, so they’d [send in tunnelers to clear the ventilation drift] or at least start to do something,” Chaykin told Meduza. “We said that soon the [ventilation drift] would be completely crushed, [but] no one responded to this in any way.”

The ventilation drift was finally “crushed” on November 10. The “earth swelled” and the “roof fell in,” Avdeev recalled. Miner Nikolai Alimov also heard about this from a colleague who was working in longwall #823. Chaykin, too, said that ventilation drift was “completely crushed.” 

Air was barely flowing in — and methane was building up. Avdeev remembered that his sensor showed “10.5 percent gas.” “The men said that we were [sitting] on a powder keg — sooner or later an incident would happen,” Chaykin added. “At one point [methane levels] were 20–30 percent.”

When the methane concentration became critical, the miners set up a fan to direct contaminated air out of the mine for 24 hours. After that, the methane level dropped to 2–4 percent. “And then we started going back [to work] again, because the coal was needed. The head [of the site] himself said: if we don’t fulfill the plan, we’ll go under, there’ll be no money,” Chaykin remembered. Meduza was unable to reach the head of the site for comment: Sergey Gerasimenok was arrested on charges of violating industrial safety requirements for hazardous production facilities. (He pleaded not guilty). 

The miners tried to clear the drift by hand, albeit unsuccessfully. Ventilation pipes were inserted into the blockage to try and bring in fresh air. According to Avdeev, who took part in trying to clear the drift, the blockage was about 300 meters (984 feet) long. Yuri Paranin says the mine’s management should have suspended operations “but they needed the coal.”

Alimov also said that in his understanding, the mine would have had to stop production in order to fix the ventilation system. “This [would have meant] big losses, each longwall emergency stop [has] the entire management scurrying to restore production as soon as possible,” he added. 

Supposedly, Rostekhnadzor carried out another inspection at the mine just a few days before the explosion. But according to state investigators, inspectors Sergey Vinokurov and Vyacheslav Semykin signed the reports, but never actually inspected the ventilation drift.

According to Avdeev, the miners, knowing that the ventilation system wasn’t working properly, wanted to halt production themselves. “We wanted to stop, but our supervisor said: you can stop, but they’ll bring the hammer down on me. Here, you understand, it’s a miners’ brotherhood: if we must, we must — let’s go,” he explained, adding that all the miners have “mortgages and families.” 

The miners hoped the degassing pipes would provide adequate ventilation, Paranin said; they believed that “something was being done.” “That night, the guys from our site drove a roadheader to the place where [the ventilation drift] was crushed,” Alimov recalled. Avdeev and Chaykin said the same thing: on the eve of the explosion, they were actually getting ready to clear the drift. 

According to Avdeev and Paranin’s estimates, it would have taken two to three weeks to clear the blockage — in other words, two to three weeks without production. If that were the case, the Listvyazhnaya would have been unable to meet its plan. In September, the mine raised its target from 430,000 to 550,000 tons of coal per month, Avdeev said. At the time of the accident, the mine was lagging behind the plan by more than 100,000 tons — with a daily target of 18,000 tons, he underscored.

‘They paid as they wanted’

The Listvyazhnaya coal mine is owned by SDS Ugol — one of the largest thermal coal producers in Russia. The company brought in 5.8 billion rubles ($78.7 million) in revenue in 2020; the Listvyazhnaya accounted for 16 percent of its total coal production. At the same time, the company had a lot of debts: up until 2021, the price of coal had been falling for 10 years. In 2020, SDS Ugol even applied for state support and asked to refinance its debt — Russia’s Energy Ministry helped the company reach an agreement with the banks.

But at current coal prices, even taking into account the shutdown at the Listvyazhana mine, SDS Ugol won’t suffer financial losses. The company is even poised to end the year with a higher net profit than in 2020. Coal prices have been growing since the beginning of 2021, there was a drop in prices in late October, but even then they remained higher than at the start of the year. Against the backdrop of this spike, Russian companies have sought to increase production.

Eleven years ago, after the Raspadskaya mine explosion — Russia’s deadliest mining accident, which unofficial sources attributed to higher-than-normal production — Vladimir Putin handed down an order that made miners’ salaries less dependent on output. Miners’ earnings became 70 percent fixed and only 30 percent dependent on the plan. 

But 30 percent of one’s salary is still a significant sum for the Listvyazhnaya’s miners. According to Alimov, the minimum wage for a longwall worker or a shaft sinker at the mine is 58,000 rubles ($787) a month before tax; factoring in bonuses for achieving the plan, this sum can reach up to 100,000 rubles ($1,357). But Chaykin clarified that in recent years, the mine’s management has “paid as they wanted” — and despite Putin’s order, bonuses still made up the bulk of the miners’ salaries. Meanwhile, production targets were raised constantly — sometimes even just a few days before the end of the month. 

“At the meeting about the Listvyazhnaya [accident], the president scolded the managers and owners for violating safety [requirements] for the sake of commercial interests,” Skryl commented. “But interest in working in safe conditions and commercial interests don’t fully coincide with each other right now.”

The expert explained that in the United States, for example, there aren’t any mines dug as deep as the Listvyazhnaya, because regulations make it unprofitable to work in such hazardous conditions. “Too high costs have to be borne — both [in terms of] insurance and payments in the event of accidents or injuries. There’s no commercial interest in working in hazardous conditions,” Skryl told Meduza. 

Russia, he continued, has no such strict requirements — neither in terms of insurance, nor workers’ compensation; and a mine’s owners aren’t responsible for industrial safety. During a meeting with President Putin following the accident, the president of the SDS holding, Mikhail Fedyaev, chalked the disaster up to “human error.”

SDS Ugol doesn’t have a single statement about the accident at the Listvyazhnaya coal mine on its website. The company’s press service was unable to provide a timely response to Meduza’s inquiries. Neither could the press service of Rostekhnadzor’s Siberian branch. The mine’s director, Sergey Makhrakov, had been placed under arrest and was unavailable for comment. 

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Story by Anastasia Yakoreva

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart


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