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Are Polish mines unsafe?

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

This month’s accident is just the latest in a series of mining tragedies, which are almost impossible to avoid in deep coal mining. Last year, a mining accident killed six and injured 17 miners, and in 2006, a methane explosion at the Halemba mine killed 23 miners.

Politicians are becoming aware of the problems associated with the mines.

“Do we really have to extract coal in every condition, at every depth and at every danger?” Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, said after the disaster. “I think it’s high time to say we will not dig coal there where it causes a direct danger to life.”

But even Tusk, a pro-business politician generally in favor of selling off state-controlled companies, balks at the idea of privatizing the coal mines. His foe, Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president, has made hanging on to state assets a key part of his political program.

Kaczynski is keen on gathering crucial votes from miners and their families. However, the sector is not just important for the votes it brings, and for the jobs it provides to the politically well-connected who tend to become company directors; it also provides Poland with crucial energy security.

While most other European countries have shuttered the bulk of their coal mines due to high extraction costs, Poland currently generates about 90 percent of its electricity from coal, one of the highest ratios in the world, which has made Poland a target of environmentalists worried about global warming. By contrast, Poland imports almost all of its oil and two-thirds of its natural gas from Russia, and there are growing concerns about energy dependence on Poland’s former imperial ruler.

The coal industry has been through wrenching changes since the collapse of communism in 1989. The government, together with institutions like the World Bank, has spent more than $1 billion to restructure the sector. As a result, the painful reforms have seen the number of workers in the industry plunge from 400,000 in the 1980s to only about 100,000 today.

But Poland’s reliance on coal for energy and on miners for votes means that September’s mining accident is unlikely to be the last.