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Silent killer strikes again

Another accident caused by firedamp gas hits the ailing Spanish coal-mining industry

The worst accident in Spanish mines in the last 18 years is a grim reminder of the personal risk faced daily in one of the hardest and most dangerous of jobs, while highlighting the solidarity that exists between different coal-mining regions, in an industry struggling for survival due to declining demand.

In spite of all the technical advances in many fields, which now seem capable of controlling almost any risk of industrial accidents, a sudden occurrence of firedamp (a general term for various explosive and poisonous gases, found unpredictably in pockets) has brought mourning to the families and friends of the six miners who died, and five who were injured, the most serious of these being a man who suffered gas poisoning when attempting to help his comrades.

Accidents of this nature now take place less frequently than they used to, thanks to improvements in ventilation systems, better devices for measuring the presence of gas leaks, and portable breathing equipment the miners carry, which gives them 30 minutes’ worth of air. However, the men trapped on Monday, in a deep gallery in a pit near the village of Gordón in the coal-mining district of León province, did not even have time to reach the respirator. The outburst of a pocket of firedamp (whose chief component is methane) was so sudden, and its concentration so high, that it caused the instant asphyxiation of the six men who died, according to estimates based on the results of the first autopsies.

Oddly enough, the accident happened in a mine with coal reserves sufficient to keep the operation going until 2025, according to the estimates prepared by its owner, the firm Hullera Vasco-Leonesa, which this year had undergone a temporary layoff affecting 357 employees amid a situation of declining profitability with a creditors’ meeting in the offing. Mining activity in the pit concerned was resumed in June. Sources in the miners’ union and various local sources agree that the pit was equipped with adequate safety measures.

While we await the results of the investigation that must clarify the specific causes and circumstances of the accident, the tragedy in León brings home to us the exacting nature of the work that goes on in the deeper pits, where coal is extracted from far underground at depths of hundreds of meters. It is impossible not to be moved by this new tragedy suffered in an industry in which, surprising as it may seem in the 21st century, technological innovations have yet to banish the ever-present threat of sudden death that has always been associated with the world of mining.

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