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Are Polish mines unsafe?

A recent explosion that killed 17 has illuminated troubles in Poland's coal mining sector.

People stand outside of the Wojek coal mine in Ruda Slaska, Sept. 18, 2009. Seventeen miners were killed and 35 were severely burned in a methane explosion. (Krzysztof Matuszynski/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — A methane explosion in a Polish coal mine in September that killed 17 miners and left 35 severely burned has cast light on the safety practices and economic condition of one of Europe’s largest coal mining sectors.

The accident on Sept. 18 at the Wujek Slask mine in the western region of Silesia happened as miners were digging out coal more than 1,000 yards below the ground. An unexpected buildup of methane triggered alarms too late, and a flash explosion scorched the men underground.

As worried wives waited outside the mine head, and politicians and ambulances raced to the scene, the deadly accident was attributed to the persistently grim financial condition of the coal mines. Now the government's watchdog body is investigating after reports surfaced that miners were pressured to tweak the settings of the underground methane detectors in order to not slow production.

The mining sector in Poland is still overwhelmingly in government hands, and any thoughts of selling off the mines to private investors like Zdenek Bakala, the Czech mining magnate who has made a fortune out of his country’s coal mines, arouses howls of protests in Poland. But being state-held means that the mines are not run efficiently, and don’t have the funds to invest in modernizing their equipment and technology. In the first half of this year, Poland’s coal mining sector lost 153 million zlotys ($54 million), as demand for coal slumped due to the global economic crisis.

Although the mines turned a profit of $110 million in the same period last year, even that result was lackluster considering that the economic boom in central Europe was still going at full steam.

One reason for the financial troubles of the mines is that, unlike in the United States, Australia and South Africa, which tend to extract coal in massive open cast mines that strip the mineral from the surface, Poland’s coal seams are deep underground. There, dangers such as underground fires and methane lurk for miners and make extraction costs much higher.

The depth of the coal has caused mines to use questionable methods, such as digging at seams that lie below the level of the mine shafts, which creates problems in pumping through enough air to cleanse the area of dangerous gases like methane.