Friday, May 16, 2014
On Tuesday May 13, 2014 at around 15:00, we were faced with the greatest human loss from a man-made disaster in our modern history. The largest accident to occur in recent years took place in the Soma county of the Manisa Province in the Eynez Region, below the earth in the Karanlık Dere (Dark Creek) Soma coal mines. The disaster began with underground mine fires that spewed out dense carbon monoxide, poisoning and killing hundreds of miners as well as mining engineers.
While evaluating the current disaster situation, we should approach the causes of the accident with great caution. Without having detailed technical information, it is too early to come to a final, accurate conclusion as to what initiated the accident.
We understand that in lieu of serious costly renovation investments, operation preferred extreme forced air circulation in the underground coal field tunnels, blowing excessive clean air with high capacity forced air fans into the mine fields which are 420 meters below sea level. Forced draft fresh air ventilators were overloaded, suction side induced draft fans were similarly overloaded. Both fans consumed huge amounts of energy from the underground high voltage transformer. The transformer was overloaded, overheated, and eventually caught fire in the end. This is what we know now. All other unconfirmed speculation remains hearsay.
We were told that the main transformer combusted, creating an underground fire that blocked access to all emergency exists and halted the elevators, thus preventing escape. At the time of the accident at 15:00, two different groups were on site due to a shift-change. Around 700+ miners were trapped underground. All were exposed to and suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Initial descriptions of the accident in which the transformer exploded (or caught aflame) have brought about increased confusion. In mining practices, transformers should be manufactured and supplied according to highly regulated safety standards. They have a low probability of combustion, even under extreme workloads. Underground high voltage transformers are isolated in protective concrete enclosures that shield the mine from all fire accidents.
In addition, all electrical wiring and equipment is manufactured and supplied in accordance with certified explosion-proof (flame-proof) standards. To further reduce the possibility of fires, a "dry-type" of the explosion-proof high voltage transformer is selected. Thus we feel that the explosion of any transformer has a low probability, due to the typical highly protective mechanical features of the normal operation practices.
A team of local engineers from the Turkish Chamber of Electrical Engineers went to the mines where the accident occurred the following day to investigate the situation. They apprised that there was an underground fire which ignited the coal mines, thus creating carbon monoxide which in turn poisoned the miners.
Fresh air ventilation systems were disrupted as mechanical routing was not activated. Automation systems and escape elevators were not in operation. Fresh air could not be pumped below -700 meter elevations. The effects of the fire, smoke, and carbon monoxide were seen in widespread burns and poisoning.
Underground instruments made to detect toxic and explosive gases within the fresh air ventilation system were inadequate, obsolete, and non-renovated. Combustion starting in the underground mine fields was composed of deadly carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and methane gases that were responsible for a large number of deaths. There are rescue workers still in the mine but hope for those still trapped inside is diminishing.
The rescue operations were extremely difficult due to the fires inside the mine. Emergency elevators should have been in operation and a stand-by power supply should have been available.
Until the year 2007, the mine was operated by a state-owned company named "Aegean Lignite" enterprises, which was criticized for its high operation costs. Later, the mine operation was privatized.
Operation is now profitable. It pays a 25% fee to the Treasury on supplies mined. The new owners declare that their coal price is now at 24 US dollars per metric ton of coal with a 4000 kcal/kg lower heating value, which corresponds to 1.50 US Dollars per MMBTU at mine mouth delivery. But at what cost? Is it because of the low wages of the workers? Limited renovation investments? Out-dated equipment? Blocked or inoperable detection instruments?
The Izmir Branch of the Chamber of Mining Engineers released a public statement that the accident/explosion was caused by gas that was created when the transformer overloaded and consequently ignited. In these types of fire accidents, toxic gases that can induce poisoning make it so that workers cannot approach the source without masks and protective glasses.
Cheap cables which are manufactured by countries in Eastern Europe and the Far East, emit noxious gases when burned. The underground mining area is currently closed to any technical inspections and investigations. We understand that Turkish Coal Enterprise has already transferred their "dry-type" transformers to the new owners for upgrading and renovation.
Throughout the world, most new buyers of privatized coal fields and private buyers of thermal power plants do not pay for the rehabilitation, renovation, or upgrading of the plants. Instead they continue to operate with existing equipment, pay more to public relations, pay less to workers, generate income, and postpone the replacement of equipment with better and bigger capacities. They avoid spending money on upgrading the plants or mine fields, they dig deeper into the mines, sell to the plants, and generate electricity and income.
Regulating agencies are helpless everywhere. Environmental expectations of the society are not met. Plants are operated at extremely high load conditions, so in the end, mine field are depleted quickly, thermal power plants rapidly degrade, and businesses age swiftly.
For these reasons they face mine fires, mining accidents, inefficient procedures, capacity reduction, restricted availabilities, low efficiency, a high number of interruptions, and many halts on operations. When rehabilitation expenditures are delayed, we notice continuous demands for time extensions for renovations, requests for exemptions from the responsibilities to invest in environmentally-sound equipment, and the avoidance of environmental emission-limitation norms. Societies' expectations for better operations, a cleaner environment, and higher salaries are not met.
In privatization, in the asset sales of power plants or in the leasing of mine fields, society expects a better environment, better job and safety standards, healthy and safe workplaces, and better plant and mine operations. These are also not met. We wish that we had been taught our lesson after all of these unpleasant, painful events. We select our politicians to better regulate these operations, for more secure, modern, and healthier workplace environments, complete with better functioning secure working conditions. In the end, we are all responsible for monitoring these plants and mine fields 24/7, through our public officials as well as our local NGOs.
On behalf of the Turkish Weekly family, we extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and our sincere wishes for the safe evacuation of the remaining miners. We send our heartfelt condolences to the families of those who passed in the Manisa Soma mine collapse. Our thoughts are with the people of Soma County and we pray for those who are still trapped inside.
Ankara, 16 May, 2014
Haluk Direskeneli, is a graduate of METU Mechanical Engineering department (1973). He worked in public and private enterprises, USA Turkish JV companies (B&W, CSWI, AEP), in fabrication, basic and detail design, marketing, sales and project management of thermal power plants. He is currently working as a freelance consultant/ energy analyst with thermal power plants basic/ detail design software expertise for private engineering companies, investors, universities and research institutions. He is a member of METU Alumni and the Chamber of Turkish Mechanical Engineers Energy Working Group.
Journal of Turkish Weekly