Kazakhstan confirms nationalisation of ArcelorMittal unit as nation mourns death of 45 in coal mine blaze

Kazakhstan confirms nationalisation of ArcelorMittal unit as nation mourns death of 45 in coal mine blaze
At press briefings given after the tragedy, Kazakhstan's President Tokayev was unsparing in his criticisms of ArcelorMittal. / WION news coverage, screenshot
By bne IntelIiNews October 30, 2023

Kazakhstan at the weekend moved quickly to confirm the nationalisation of coal and ore miner and steelmaker ArcelorMittal Temirtau as the country went into mourning over a deadly coal mine blaze that claimed the lives of at least 45 people.

Speaking to victims’ relatives at the mine—the Kostenko mine in the central Karaganda region—Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev slated Luxembourg-based steel giant ArcelorMittal, the parent company behind the local unit, as “the worst enterprise in Kazakhstan’s history in terms of cooperation with the government”, AFP reported.

Giving the death toll the day after the October 28 fire, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Emergency Situations said one miner was still unaccounted for. Rescue operations were hindered by damaged mining equipment and rubble, officials said.

ArcelorMittal Temirtau attributed the blaze to a methane gas explosion. Approximately 252 people were inside the mine when the fire began.

ArcelorMittal Temirtau is responsible for Kazakhstan’s major coal and ore mines and steel plants.

Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov noted that prior to the fire a preliminary agreement on nationalisation had been reached with the company's shareholders, and the formalisation of the process was in progress.

Declaring the national day of mourning, Tokayev ordered cooperation with ArcelorMittal to be “brought to an end”.

The prosecutor-general, meanwhile, initiated an investigation into potential safety violations in the coal mine. 

ArcelorMittal Temirtau has a history of high workplace mortality rates at its sites in Kazakhstan and has come under repeated criticism for a perceived lack of commitment to robust safety measures and investment strategies. The enterprise has experienced over 100 fatal incidents involving miners throughout its operation, with recent tragedies occurring in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

The prosecutor's office has made limited progress in recent times obtaining information from the company about measures taken to enhance safety protocols and prevent accidents. This year, an inspection of the company's mines uncovered several safety violations.

In an incident on August 17, four miners died in a fire that broke out in another mine, Kazakhsanskaya, operated by ArcelorMittal Temirtau in Karaganda region. After that blaze, Kazakh Prime Minister Alikhan Smaiylov criticised the company for what he referred to as a lack of compliance with industry regulations and its focus on profit over ensuring safe working conditions.

The previous deadliest mine accident in post-Soviet Kazakhstan occurred in 2006, killing 41 miners at another ArcelorMittal site.

In a company statement released after the weekend fire, ArcelorMittal said: “No words can adequately convey the devastation the company feels following this accident.  Everything that can be done to support the families who have lost loved ones through this deeply painful time will be done.”

It added: “ArcelorMittal can also confirm, as communicated earlier today by the government of Kazakhstan, that the two parties have been in discussions concerning the future of ArcelorMittal Temirtau and recently signed a preliminary agreement for a transaction that will transfer ownership to the Republic of Kazakhstan.”

ArcelorMittal arrived in Kazakhstan in 1995. Led by Indian businessman Lakshmi Mittal,it operates 15 factories and mines in the centre of the former Soviet republic.