Turkish coal mine disaster cranks up pressure on miners, utilities – by Henning Gloystein (Reuters India – May 14, 2014)

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LONDON, May 14 (Reuters) – A coal mine explosion and fire that has killed over 200 people in Turkey coincides with increased pressure on miners and utilities to drastically improve safety and environmental standards for miners risking their lives.

Coal mining is responsible for more fatalities than the production of any other energy source due to poor working conditions in producing countries such as China, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia and Colombia. It is also a major world polluter.

The disaster in western Turkey, likely to be the country’s deadliest, is still unfolding with hundreds believed to be trapped underground. It’s also the worst in a series of incidents in a sector that has seen 30,000 die since 1970.

A coal mine collapse in the U.S. state of West Virginia killed two workers this week at a facility that had “chronic compliance issues” and received numerous citations from inspectors last year.

Last month, two more workers were killed in Australia after a supporting wall in a coal mine about 240 kilometres (150 miles) west of Sydney gave way, trapping the two men about 500 metres (1,640 feet) below the surface.

This deadly record is putting pressure on utilities from shareholders to source their coal in a more ethical and environmentally friendly way to save thousands of miners and reduce pollution.

Despite its poor record, coal accounts for over 40 percent of global electricity generation as coal-fired power stations are relatively cheap to build and operate.

SHAREHOLDER PRESSURE

Under scrutiny from major shareholders including Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, some energy companies have begun to take action, clubbing together to form the Bettercoal group to improve their ethical, social and environmental standards.

“There is increasing awareness of coal’s destruction… and also understanding that alternatives are possible,” said Ailun Yang, senior associate at the U.S. World Resources Institute.

The coal mining sector’s dismal fatality record since 1970 compares with 20,000 deaths in the oil sector and around 1,500 in natural gas, according to estimates from the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), a Swiss natural and engineering sciences institute.

Other estimates are much higher with Hazardex, a specialist in safety information, saying that China’s death toll alone is over 1,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said last month that air pollution, partly caused by burning coal, killed 7 million people worldwide in 2012, making it the world’s single biggest environmental health risk, and the WHO recommended “the movement away from dirtier fuels, such as coal”.

LETTER TO THE POPE

Environmentalists, religious groups, academics, politicians and scientists say the utilities and the banks which fund the coal mining still have not done enough.

Norway’s $817 billion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s biggest, has halved its exposure to coal producers, and Chief Executive Yngve Slyngstad told Reuters in March it would further review investments in the sector this year.

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