Mongolia’s mining sector may be thriving, but Nalaikh, a town once famed as the country’s industrial hub and the site of its first coal mine, has become synonymous with mining disasters.
Since the collapse of Communism and the end of Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s, the eponymous Nalaikh mine has emerged as perhaps the most dangerous place in Mongolia. Yet, with little government oversight, hundreds of informal miners continue to excavate coal there. The former state-run site has claimed 47 lives since 2009, according to an official count. The victims are mostly young men between the ages of 23 and 35.
On March 15, seven coal miners at Nalaikh died after becoming trapped in underground shafts. The tragedy, however, was overshadowed by the government’s release of a long-awaited shortlist of companies vying to develop Tavan Tolgoi, the world’s largest untapped coking coal deposit, holding an estimated 6.5 billion tons. International mining giants Peabody, Vale and Xstrata are among the short-listed companies. In addition to a prodigious amount of coal, Mongolia is believed to hold deposits of precious metals, including gold and copper, totaling roughly $1 trillion.
The output of Tavan Tolgoi alone is expected to double Mongolia’s GDP by 2015. A vital component in the steel industry, international demand for coking coal is expected to grow. But Nalaikh’s thermal coal, found deep underground, attracts little international or government interest these days. Though the site is large, it pales in comparison with new, easier-to-access finds in the resource-rich country. The Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy estimates Mongolia has 150 billion tons of coal reserves.
Today, only informal miners and small companies continue to scrape away at the Nalaikh deposit, working under precarious conditions.
Mining at Nalaikh, about 35 kilometers southeast of the Mongolian capital Ulaanbataar, dates back to 1920. And as late as the 1950s, Nalaikh was still the only mine in the country, employing as many as 1,500 people. As the most industrialized town in Mongolia back then, it drew migrants from all over the country. A fatal methane gas explosion in 1990 that killed 21 and forced the government to shut down the mine.
“With the breakdown of Soviet support, we couldn’t afford the technology required for large scale underground mines anymore,” said Chogtkhuu Luvsang, a former employee at the Nalaikh mine and currently chief inspector at the local Geological and Mining Inspection Agency. The government additionally focused its attention and resources on developing less expensive open pit mine sites.
The Nalaikh mine still holds about 30 million tons of coal, Luvsang says. As the work is informal, the exact number of workers is difficult to pinpoint, but Luvsang estimates about 2,500 people work at Nalaikh during the peak season from September to May.
After the formal closure of the site and surrounding industries, masses of freshly unemployed and skilled miners turned to illegal mining. By 1994, the government attempted to regain some control by issuing licenses for operations at Nalaikh. “There are 36 small companies with licenses now but they all operate the same way -- with minimal safety standards,” says Luvsang. He can do little except issue warnings and provide safety training, he added. It is Luvsang’s impression that the government pays too little attention to Nalaikh, as officials have their eyes on bigger projects, involving vast foreign investments.
Shafts at Nalaikh these days are dug haphazardly and with little coordination among the various mining teams; cave-ins are becoming more frequent as shafts stray too close together and go deeper than ever before. In many instances, miners don’t bother setting up safety beams, considering them an unnecessary expense.
Concern over the increasing number of accidents has the government mulling whether to declare a freeze on all mining at Nalaikh. But miners are unlikely to abandon the site, unless they are presented with a viable alternative to earn a living. “There are about 200 shafts and each shaft has a minimum of 10 workers -- not to forget all the drivers, middlemen and resellers dependent on this. It would be catastrophic for all of us if the mines are shut,” insists Musa Tuluu, a second-generation ethnic Kazakh miner whose father migrated to Nalaikh in the 1960s.
For most workers at Nalaikh, speculation on a mining boom in Mongolia and the Tavan Tolgoi contract stir little excitement. “They’ll most probably get Chinese workers and I’m too old to dream now,” says 47-year-old Quad Byek, a former digger who now runs his own operation at a shaft employing nine men. Though worried about the safety of the team working underground, he admits their main concern is to dig as much coal as possible before the weather warms and the frozen earth thaws. That’s when the risk of cave-ins increases significantly.
Beneath a layer of cynicism, many miners hope for a better life, at least for their families. “I hope my children don’t continue the family tradition of mining, but if they do, I hope they find work in big companies where work is easier and safer,” said Tuluu, the Kazakh.
Pearly Jacob is a freelance journalist based in Ulaanbaatar.