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Investigations 15 Feb 13

Bosnia Mine Tragedy ‘Could Have Been Prevented’

A fatal accident at Bosnia’s Breza coal mine last year might not have happened if the  management did not ignore safety legislation, a BIRN investigation has revealed.

Aldin Arnautović
Bosnia and Herzegovina

The underground accident which killed father-of-three Sakib Tatarević on May 6, 2012 at the Breza mine near Sarajevo could have been avoided if legally-required supervisors had been there to spot the fire that had been smouldering for days, BIRN can reveal.

Documents obtained by BIRN show that three days before Tatarević died, instruments that measure toxic gas levels had signalled the presence of potentially dangerous carbon monoxide in Breza’s Sretno (‘Good Luck’) pit, which could have raised the alarm ahead of the blaze.

The fire, in its early ‘oxidation’ phase, was not discovered at the time. When it flared up, it destroyed much of the Sretno pit and killed Tatarević.

The accident happened at a weekend, when no supervisors were working in the mine, even though the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s mining law says that supervision must be maintained at all times.

The mine’s director Suad Čosić admitted to BIRN that “had it been a working day, maybe it wouldn’t have happened because at weekends there is no supervision in the mine”.

BIRN also spoke to around 15 miners who made allegations about poor conditions and recently-introduced pay cuts.

All refused to speak publicly for fear of reprisals. One said that the management kept them under control by the use of restrictive ‘annexes’ to work contracts which threaten them with the sack.

Several miners also told BIRN that the situation got worse after the removal of the mine’s former boss in November 2011 – a dismissal that ex-director Ćamil Zaimović believes was politically motivated. 

Sretno’s luck runs out

At 7am on Sunday, May 6, 2012, more than 40 people went down the Sretno pit. Documents containing measuring results obtained by BIRN show that the fire erupted between 10.30 and 11am when the concentration of carbon monoxide exceeded the prescribed exposure limits.

Sakib Tatarević was the first to notice the flames and alert his colleagues.

One of the miners who was there at the time recalls being gripped by fear.

“I look in front of me, there’s smoke coming. But it’s not coming in a straight kind of way. It is rolling like a lump through the hallway,” he said.

“My first thought was to run in the opposite direction,” he continued. “Then I realised that we had to go through the smoke to get to the exit.”

The men managed to get out of the mine using protective respiratory devices. But Tatarević was found dead in a half-sitting position with his protective equipment hanging around his neck. It has not been established why he failed to use it.

A prosecutor’s office report, yet to be published, could shed light on the role of the mine’s management.

The main question is still why the fire wasn’t noticed on time, because fires in coal mines usually take days or weeks to develop. The process of oxidation, which releases carbon monoxide, is often lengthy.

“To get to the state of flaring up, a fire needs to develop a temperature of over 500 degrees Celsius. Usually that takes a week or two, up to a few months,” said Abduselam Adilović, head of the Tuzla Mining Faculty’s safety department.

Suad Cosic

In his first of two interviews with BIRN, in October 2012, Breza director Čosić said that the fire flared up quickly between evening and morning.  

But Adilović insisted that a fire could not develop in a mine in the space of only one day.

“It can’t. That’s impossible,” he said. “It all depends on the lithological composition and this period, depending on the conditions, can vary from seven days to a few months.”

Experts say that the appearance of carbon monoxide in a mine can be a result of a process of incomplete combustion, known as smouldering, but can also be triggered by a mining operation.

To protect the workers from the potentially harmful effects of carbon monoxide, its causes need to be determined as soon as possible.

Adilović said that when carbon monoxide is discovered, regulations oblige the mine management to determine the cause.

BIRN has obtained document  listing gas measurements which show that three days before the May 2012 accident, increased levels of carbon monoxide were recorded at 11 measuring points in the Sretno mine. 

A second document, from a methanometer station, shows the presence of carbon monoxide was recorded for hours before the accident.

At 11am on May 6, 2012, the curve in the chart went over the danger level, meaning that the smouldering in the mine had become an open fire. The body of the dead miner was pulled out at 1pm.

Mining experts told BIRN that the pit has equipment that efficiently signals all unusual levels of toxic gases.

Although documents show that carbon monoxide was present in the mine three days before the accident, director Čosić claimed in his first interview with BIRN that the fire broke out in only a few hours.

“There was an indication [of carbon monoxide] on the methanometer, but on the night from Saturday to Sunday, in the morning,” he said.

Čosić said that the lack of weekend supervision was “standard practice”. 

But article 35 of Federation’s Law on Mining says that supervision of a mine and the people working in it must be “continuous and uninterrupted”.

The second time BIRN contacted Čosić, by email, in Decemeber 2012, he claimed that the presence of carbon monoxide in the Breza mine was a regular occurrence.

“Indications of carbon monoxide build-up are always present in our coal pits on a daily basis. However, by building regulatory insulation and ventilation facilities, the impact of coal oxidation processes in our coal pits is reduced and the concentration of the dangerous CO [carbon monoxide] is reduced to the allowed limits of below 50 ppm [parts per million],” Čosić wrote in his emailed reply to BIRN.

The mine’s former director Ćamil Zaimović says however that the measuring instruments should have alerted about the danger in time.

“There is modern equipment which gives a warning in advance,” Zaimović told BIRN.

Obsolete safety equipment

The Sretno pit was closed right after the accident and works to repair the fire damage began in August 2012. Less than a month later, another fatal accident took place.

While working in an airless part of the mine which was damaged in the fire, Almir Hajduković, a 24-year-old member of the rescue team, took off his breathing apparatus and suffocated.

Bosnian Federation mining inspector Ferid Osmanović told BIRN that most of the equipment used by the country’s miners was outdated and no longer manufactured, so spare parts were hard to find.

“Only two mines have more modern breathing apparatus while the process of obtaining this equipment is underway in the others,” he added.

The Breza mine falls into the second category. Following the accident in which Hajduković died, Ćosić said that the breathing units used in the mine were 33 years old, and that they were awaiting new ones which were expected to arrive this year.

New government, new mine boss

The Breza coal mine was famous across the former Yugoslavia for its legendary udarnik (super-productive worker) and ‘hero of Socialist labour’, Alija Sirotanović, whose likeness appeared on a Yugoslav banknote after the authorities claimed by that he dug more coal in one shift than the Soviet Union’s Communist-promoted ‘model worker’, Aleksei Stakhanov.

The mine currently employs some 1,250 people and is the biggest source of jobs in Breza, a municipality of 15,000 people located some 20 kilometres from Sarajevo.

The Breza complex is made up of two underground pits, Kamenica and Sretno, and an open-cast mine. Each day, miners bring to the surface between 1,000 and 1,500 tons of coal worth 80,000 to 240,000 euro.

Since January 2009, the mine has been managed by the mainly state-owned electrical energy company Elektroprivreda Bosne i Hercegovine. By merging with Elektroprivreda BiH, Breza was seeking to safeguard its future amid changed post-war economic conditions.

The year after the merger, in September 2010, the mine started to achieve better financial results, according to a supervisory committee whose data BIRN has obtained.

Meanwhile, the October 2010 parliamentary elections in Bosnia’s Federation entity brought the Social Democratic Party, SDP, to power. Energy was just one of the sectors that saw management changes after the polls.

Former Breza director Zaimović had been appointed by former energy minister, a member of the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vahid Hećo.

In November 2011, Zaimović was replaced by Čosić, a member of the incoming SDP.

Zaimović, who remained employed but on different position, alleges that he received verbal confirmation from Elektroprivreda BiH that his dismissal was politically motivated and is currently suing his employer. He maintains that there were no business reasons for his dismissal because the mine had begun to recover from years of losses. 

“They started a meeting and asked me to wait outside. Fifteen minutes afterwards they informed me (that I was being replaced),” he said.

In 2012, the mine again experienced financial difficulties. On October 19, 2012, four of the mine’s 11 accounts were frozen.

But director Čosić said that since then, there has been record post-war production and that “when the balance is drawn up, this year (2012) the Breza mine should not be in the black”.

Miners suffer in silence

Around 15 miners told BIRN on condition of anonymity that since last November’s change of management, working conditions had deteriorated.

The mine was already a dangerous place, they said.

“Where we work, it’s a horror,” one said. “You climb up four metres and then you are filling up a hole above your head that is another four metres high. If anything should fall on you from up there, you’re history.”

Although production has increased, wages have been cut, the miners alleged.

“I used to make 2,000 KM [1,000 euro] yet now I can’t even make 1,000 KM [500 euro],” one said. Another said that his pay had been cut by around 150 euro over the past year. Most said that they make less than they used to.

But Čosić maintains that no miner earns less that 600 euro a month and that most bear personal responsibility for their own financial difficulties because they have taken out bank loans.

In spite of their discontent over conditions, none of the miners was willing to give his name. They said that the management ensures silence with annexes to contracts  that are signed every month. Although miners have two-year employment contracts, the annexes are used to assess their performance rates and discipline, and allow them to be fired.

“They keep you on an annex for 23 months and 14 days. Then they sack you and hire you again for a trial period and again you sign an annex,” one miner explained.

Čosić confirmed the use of annexes, but said they were a useful mechanism for trial periods, “to see what kind of a worker someone is”.

The prosecutor’s office in Bosnia’s Zenica-Doboj canton is still investigating the causes of both accidents at Breza.

Ferid Osmanović from the Federation’s department for inspection affairs said he had already submitted his report on the May 2012 accident to the cantonal prosecutor’s office in charge of the investigation, but declined to release other details regarding the case.

As for the second accident, Osmanović said that an expert opinion about the dead miner’s breathing apparatus has been sought, which will also be sent to the prosecutor’s office.

Once the investigation is complete, the prosecutor will assess whether anyone was responsible for the accidents that left two young miners dead and five children without fathers.

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