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Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Illegal miners brave dangers to make a living

Two men died in a Nalaikh coal mine last week. They died in an underground mineshaft and medical experts concluded that their deaths had been caused by lack of ventilation due to poor attention to safety. The men were 26 and 28-years-old. This is not the first case of its kind so I wanted to learn more about the working conditions in Nalaikh coalmines. Photojournalist G.Erdenetuya and I went to Nalaikh district to find out.

The official Nalaikh coal mine was opened in 1952 and at that time estimates were that the deposits held over 60 million tons of coal. The mine was closed in 1992 because there was an explosion that killed 21 miners. Before it was closed, daily output was 800,000-1 million tons of coal per day. There are now groups of miners who continue working in the area informally and illegally.

We visited three mineshafts situated next to the remains of the old mining building. There were some miners there and we explained the purpose of our visit to them, saying that we wanted to extract coal and see how they work. The miners agreed to help us and suggested visiting the western shaft, however we instead chose one of the other holes, as they are not quite so steep. They told me that they do this illegal work in order to make a living, as they have no other way to sustain themselves.

One man named Zoljargal lead us and we entered the mineshaft. We were feeling our way down the shaft, which had no steps and was a slope of almost 75 degrees. The shaft was about two meters high by 1.4 meters. We felt our way along the shaft using a steel cable that was attached to a stake outside the mouth of the shaft. I couldn’t see anything and after much difficulty we arrived at a level shaft. We weren’t wearing safety helmets and had no light. Zoljargal called a man who then appeared from the darkness and showed us the way with a lamp on his helmet. At one place the shaft was only one meter high and we had to crouch for about ten meters to get through. The wall of the shaft was brilliant black coal and the roof of the shaft seemed to be made of dust. There were a lot of other shafts branching off from the one we followed.

At the place where we stopped, there were three men working. Erdenetuya and I tried to mine some coal – our aim being to fill a trough that is normally used to transport the coal along the shafts. The trough measured about 120 centimeters long, 70 centimeters wide and 50 centimeters deep. It took us about 30 minutes to fill the trough, with the aid of the other three men. They told us that it usually takes just 15 minutes to fill a trough and they can send out two troughs of coal in 30 minutes.

The men leave the mine only three times a day, to eat and smoke. They explained that it is dangerous to smoke inside the mine. Erdenetuya and I were unable to transport the trough up to the mouth of the shaft and instead followed behind the three men. Getting out of the shaft was more difficult than getting in. Although I consider myself a sportsman I felt suffocated inside the shaft and it took me a long time to catch my breath. We rested for several minutes and started to work again. The next job was to separate coal we had extracted. The small pieces of coal are as valuable as the larger pieces, as they are used in smaller stoves and boilers.

We the carried coal to back of the truck, a Russian maade ZIL-130. Five-tons of small-sized of coal can be sold for Tg 20,000 and fills the back of a truck. It takes eight troughs of coal from the mine to fill a truck. 150 sacks of larger-sized coal can also fill a truck and can be sold for Tg85,000. The miners pay landowners Tg10,000 per day to use the mineshafts. They also sometimes have to rent a tractor to pull the troughs through the shafts, costing Tg800 per trough. They also spend money to feed themselves have to pay some other illegal ‘taxes’. After paying for all the costs, each miner takes home about Tg5,000 per day.

The miners work in very dangerous conditions. The shaft where we tried mining is 31 meters deep and the miners work there without any protection. I saw that dust often falls from the roof of the shaft and felt that it could collapse at any time.

We also visited another mine 3 or 4 kilometers away. This was more developed, but we were not allowed to enter the mine or take photos. The miners told us that this mine is 150 meters deep. Miners said that safety is better is this mine and a log is kept of accidents.