Kazakhstan: Deadly mine disaster hastens ArcelorMittal Temirtau nationalization
At least 46 workers were killed in a methane blast.
Mining company ArcelorMittal Temirtau claims it was completing its nationalization by Kazakhstan’s government just days before a blast at one of its mines in the night leading into October 28 took the lives of at least 46 workers.
In a statement on its website, the company said a preliminary agreement on the transfer of ownership had been signed earlier the previous week.
Activists, meanwhile, have demanded a criminal investigation be opened into the company, its ultimate owner, Indian-born and British-based tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, and the manager of ArcelorMittal Temirtau, Palavathu Krishnan.
A petition set up following the deadly gas explosion at the Kostenko coal mine in Karaganda, an industrial city in the center of Kazakhstan, accused ArcelorMittal Temirtau of “intentional inaction over ensuring the safety of employees.”
In the hours after the blast occurred, ArcelorMittal Temirtau issued a brief statement to say that more than 200 of the 252 miners working there at the time had been evacuated. Initially, seven fatalities were reported, but that number had risen to 46 confirmed deaths by October 30. Some 20 miners are being treated in the hospital.
Local officials have revealed that the accident occurred during a safety system check that they say failed to meet the required standards. The shockwave from the explosion reportedly had a range of over two kilometers. Representatives from ArcelorMittal Temirtau were notably absent among speakers at a press conference on the day of the blast.
ArcelorMittal Temirtau has long been a source of concern for Kazakh authorities amid allegations that it has serially committed serious violations of environmental regulations and safety standards. According to official figures, more than 100 people have died at ArcelorMittal Temirtau facilities over 15 years.
Although the prospect of nationalization is raised after every incident, ArcelorMittal Temirtau has typically faced little more than fines.
Political analyst Daniyar Ashimbayev has written that the government acted gingerly toward the company’s giant parent company, ArcelorMittal, for fear of getting bogged down in a drawn-out international business dispute of the type seen in the country’s oil sector.
This tragedy has sealed ArcelorMittal Temirtau’s fate definitively. On the day the blast happened, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met with the families of the victims and announced his decision to “terminate investment cooperation with … ArcelorMittal Temirtau.”
“This company has turned out to be the worst in our history in terms of cooperation between the government and [a private] enterprise,” Tokayev said.
The government at the same time announced it was forming a commission to investigate the causes and address the consequences of the incident, as well as overseeing finalization of the transfer of the company to the state.
ArcelorMittal Temirtau’s interests in Kazakhstan include coal mines, metallurgical plants, and ore enrichment facilities, much of it obtained during the era of privatization drives in the 1990s.
Ruslan Zheldibay, an assistant to Tokayev, refuted rumors circulating on social media that ArcelorMittal Temirtau would be sold to another foreign investor. The question of reselling is not on the table, he said.
Ashimbayev said he doubted that nationalization will resolve problems at the facilities being relinquished by ArcelorMittal Temirtau.
The bulk of industrial, energy, and utility infrastructure built in the Soviet era has already exhausted its service life, he wrote.
“Wear and tear have been significantly accelerated by the lack of adequate repairs and preventive maintenance, corruption, and the absence of state oversight," Ashimbayev wrote.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.