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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo Ambulances parked at the coal mine, in Karaganda, Kazakhstan.

ArcelorMittal transfers ownership of Kazakh mine to state after 32 workers die in fire

Over a dozen people are still missing inside the mine.

THIRTY-TWO PEOPLE HAVE died in a fire at an ArcelorMittal mine, in Kazakhstan, with over a dozen still missing in the worst such disaster in years, prompting the nationalisation of the company’s local affiliate.

The relationship between ArcelorMittal, a Luxembourg based steel manufacturer, and the Kazakh government has deteriorated after a number of ongoing issues with the mine.

In what is viewed as a final straw, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered his government to take control of the branch of the company after the fire which followed a methane explosion at the Kostenko mine in the central Karaganda region.

ArcelorMittal later confirmed it was transferring the ownership of its mines to the government today, after both parties “recently signed a preliminary agreement.”The global steel giant added it “will commit to finalising this transaction as soon as possible”.

The emergency situations ministry stated the bodies of 32 people had been found and added “the search for 14 miners is continuing.”

The ministry added there was “very little chance of finding alive” those still missing.

More than 250 people were working onsite at the time of the explosion.

At the scene, emergency workers comforted dozens of people, some with their heads in their hands as they waited anxiously for news of those who had been working below the surface.

“My father Moukat has worked at this mine for 40 years. He’s been hurt and has had surgery. They’ve promised us he will recover,” Anouar Vralin, his son, told AFP.

ArcelorMittal, led by Indian businessman Lakshmi Mittal, has a history of deadly disasters in Kazakhstan and is regularly accused of failing to respect safety and environmental regulations.

The fire was one of the deadliest in Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet history and came just two months after five miners were killed in a blast at a site owned by the company.

“This is a tragedy,” Tokayev said as he met with families of the victims. He called for a day of national mourning on Sunday.

He said the Luxembourg-listed steel and mining giant “has turned out to be the worst in our history from the point of view of cooperation between a company and the government.”

“The government has reached a preliminary agreement with shareholders of ArcelorMittal Temirtau (the local subsidiary) and is finalising the transaction to transfer ownership of the firm in favour of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov stated.

Tokayev asked the deputy governor of the Karaganda region, Vadim Basin, who used to work for ArcelorMittal, to head the company.

Five deadly accidents in a year

The fire was Kazakhstan’s worst mining accident since 2006, when 41 miners died at an ArcelorMittal site.

There have been five other deadly accidents at ArcelorMittal in Kazakhstan since November last year, resulting in a total of 12 deaths.

Ambulances and police entered the mine compound on Saturday, on whose facade hangs a portrait of Lenin, an AFP reporter saw.

ArcelorMittal promised compensation and said it would cooperate with authorities.

in-this-photo-released-by-kazakhstans-presidential-press-office-kazakh-president-kassym-jomart-tokayev-center-left-expresses-condolences-to-the-families-and-friends-of-the-miners-who-died-in-the-f Alamy Stock Photo Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, center left, expresses condolences to the families and friends of the miners who died in the fire. Alamy Stock Photo

“Our efforts are aimed at that (compensation) and on the tight cooperation with state authorities,” it said.

Officials said 18 people had been hospitalised after the fire.

“Fifteen of them are in the toxicology department with carbon monoxide poisoning,” said regional health department head Bibigul Tulegenova.

Putin sends condolences

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to his Kazakh ally.

“Please convey words of sympathy and support to the families of the killed miners,” Putin said in a statement.

“We hope the miners that are underground will be saved.”

After the fire at an ArcelorMittal coal mine in August, Tokayev condemned the “systemic character” of accidents involving the company that he said had left more than 100 people dead since 2006.

ArcelorMittal operates around a dozen mines in the highly polluted industrial region of the vast, resource-rich nation, formerly part of the Soviet Union.

Extraction of iron and coal as well as oil, gas and uranium have made its economy the largest in Central Asia, though accidents are common because of ageing infrastructure and equipment and lax safety standards.

In December last year, the government had threatened to ban ArcelorMittal from operating in the country after a worker died in what the company called “an accident” at its factory in Temirtau.

That death came just a month after five miners were killed at another Arcelor site in the region.

© AFP 2023