On January 22, the Emergency Situations Ministry presented the conclusions of its preliminary investigation, which blamed violations in the use of equipment. These violations caused sparks, the report says, that ignited methane gas and set off an explosion. The ministry said investigators are "clarifying the degree of responsibility of the mine's management."
But some say that "responsibility" goes far beyond the mine's management.
The Abai coal mine is owned by Arcelor-Mittal, which is controlled by Indian-born, billionaire steel tycoon Lakshimi Mittal. Arcelor-Mittal, formerly Mittal Steel, first started operating in Kazakhstan in 1995. The company (called Arcelor-Mittal-Temirtau in Kazakhstan) is the largest steelworks in Kazakhstan and now owns 15 coal and iron-ore mines there.
The company says it has invested more than $2 billion in these mines since its Kazakh operation started and says some $250 million has gone toward improving safety in the mines. In 2007, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development loaned Arcelor-Mittal-Temirtau $100 million to improve the health and safety practices in its coal mines.
Cutting Corners On Safety
But many say they haven't seen any improvement. Aynur Qurmanov, an activist from the Kazakh nongovernmental organization Shanyraq, visited the Abai mine after the accident. He tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that worker protection there is "simply intolerable."
Qurmanov says that many mines are "run down" and "haven't changed since the Soviet period. Mittal talks about improving the conditions and equipment, but in fact there has not been any improvement in the mines."
Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Saulebek Zhamkenuly says that mines owned by Arcelor-Mittal have a worrisome record in Kazakhstan. "Since similar accidents have been repeated on a regular basis, all the mines and industrial facilities belonging to the Arcelor-Mittal-Temirtau company are in the process of being inspected, especially the level of work safety is being looked into," he says.
One similar methane-gas explosion in September 2006 at a Kazakh mine owned by Arcelor-Mittal left 41 miners dead.
Qurmanov and Zhamkenuly's remarks suggest that not all of the millions given to improve work and safety conditions at the mines has been spent for that purpose.
But Dos Koshim, the chairman of the Kazakh nongovernmental organization Nation's Future, says that the problems at the mines might be the fault of Kazakh officials, not Arcelor-Mittal.
"I would divide the corruption into two parts," Koshim says. "The first one is the power holders in very high positions [in the Kazakh government] who do their best to support Mittal and foreign investors like him, whose major objective is to get as much from Kazakhstan's mineral resources at any cost, no matter what the work-safety conditions are or the human lives [it may cost]. The second part is the local authorities' activities that cover the foreign investors' weak points. Those two go hand-in-hand, but I would put those in high positions as the most responsible [for such accidents]."
The miners themselves are divided as to what course to take. Some went on strike shortly after the Abai mine explosion. Some even barricaded themselves inside a mine for several days to draw attention to the plight of miners. Miners at four of the mines owned by Arcelor-Mittal are threatening to walk off their jobs this week unless they receive raises, safety improvements, and the right to retire at age 50.
Sergei Shipkov, the deputy chairman of the miner's union in central Kazakhstan, says negotiations with Arcelor-Mittal representatives are set to start. He describes the situation as "complicated," and says that the union has demanded "an increase in wages, extra finances for safety and protection, and now we are waiting for a commission from London [to arrive] that will negotiate with us."
A strike following the 2006 mine accident resulted in an increase in wages for miners. Eight mid-level managers and staff at the mine received prison sentences of up to 3 1/2 years for their negligence in that accident. Arcelor-Mittal then promised to do more to improve safety at its mines in Kazakhstan.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report.)