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The Russian questions of the Mir mine

30 september 2019

The two frightening questions of Russian literature “Who is to blame” and “What to do,” unfortunately, do not allow the new world of innovative efficiency to straighten its shoulders.

Browsing the expanses of the world-wide Web on the second anniversary of the miners’ death caused by the accident at Mir, I found an interview of Vyacheslav Shtyrov, a former president of ALROSA and a former president of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia).

Among other things, the published article attracts interest because Vyacheslav Shtyrov’s comments are very emotional, which means a very personal attitude to this topic. But to what extent is the former president of ALROSA right in his criticism of the company’s current management blaming it for the tragedy? It seems to me that Vyacheslav Shtyrov’s accusations against the young head of ALROSA are unfair.

Let's go back to history and restore the chronology of events to see how in reality the construction of ALROSA’s underground mines and primarily the Mir diamond mine took place.

In the mid-1990s, ALROSA started to experience real problems faced with the depletion of diamond deposits developed by open-pit mining and the lack of a resource base in the absence of explored and suitable for industrial development new rich kimberlite pipes. In the 1990s, the Nyurba-Botuobinsky diamond cluster was the only diamond storehouse suitable for mining by a cheap open-pit method. The reserves of the Mir, Udachny and Yubileiny mines suitable for extraction by quarrying were also not endless, while the construction of the Internatsionalny underground mine was in its final stage and did not make up for the falling production. The company needed engineering solutions to extend production time at the diamond fields. ALROSA did not have experience to transfer from open-pit to underground mining at that time, while the Soviet-era protracted construction of Internatsionalny was not yet commissioned, and a number of its design solutions required revision due to their engineering insufficiency.

In 1995-2002, a group of well-known Russian experts in the field of underground design and construction, led by Professor Lev Puchkov, Rector of the Moscow State Mining University (MSMU) developed a program for the comprehensive transition from open-pit to underground mining at the diamond fields of ALROSA.

Taking into account the basic geological features of all Yakutia’s kimberlite pipes (permafrost, hydrogeological complications during the excavation and plugging of aquifers, as well as the highest degree of methane content), the following major engineering solutions were proposed as the basis for design and construction:

1. A flank pattern for tapping underground reserves, which, in contrast to the central double and triple patterns used later by ALROSA, ensured: a) the highest level of safety during personnel evacuation in case of accidents, b) a more technologically reliable pattern for draining water from workings providing high capacity for increasing mine drainage performance, c) the most efficient mine airing and ventilation system.

2. An ascending mining system (from bottom to top) with sub-level caving, without expensive backfill. Using this mining system, the safety ore pillar separating underground mine workings from the bottom of the quarry would be recovered last and any rockslide or water invasion from the quarry would be excluded. The use of this mining system made it possible to contain two dangerous factors of the Yakutian diamond pipes (including the underground Mir mine) – being collapsed, rock mass could absorb water and methane due to its certain permeability (unlike quick-hardening backfill) and improve the natural airing and operation of the mine ventilation system.

However, in 2002, Vyacheslav Shtyrov moved from ALROSA to the position of Yakutia’s President. This was followed by substantial personnel retrenchments in the company despite the fact that the Republic of Yakutia had full operational control over ALROSA at that time.

As a result, the design and construction pattern of the ALROSA mines turned out to be based on solutions aimed at quick payback (for example, the Mir mining system followed a descending pattern (from top to bottom), with the maximum recovery of the safety pillar ceiling), minimal capital expenditures for the construction of main capital shafts (sunk centrally instead of a safe flank sinking pattern) and providing contracts for the local business, such companies as Yakutcement.

The monologue of Vyacheslav Shtyrov about “backfill and caving” in the above-mentioned interview does not explain anything regarding the root of the matter. A monolithic backfill does not save either from water or from methane, unlike caved rock mass, which works as a giant sponge on worked out underlying horizons. Besides, a backfill system is very expensive.

In 2002, ALROSA was headed by Vladimir Kalitin, who laid the foundations for the controversial design of diamond mines, each of which was built without a unified engineering strategy and had its own individual characteristics (the mine haulage system using rail trolleys and electric locomotive carts for descent and ascent, etc.), which in reality did not ad safety for the miners, but increased the capital costs for re-building.

At the same time, specialists from the Moscow State Mining University were suspended from work and replaced by newly recruited designers who implemented the engineering solutions at ALROSA that led to the accident at Mir.

The period of 2003-2009 was the time of active construction and launch of the first stage of Mir. It is appropriate to recall one of the associates closest to Vyacheslav Shtyrov, which is Yuri Doinikov, a former director of the Mirny Mining and Processing Division and a former ALROSA executive director, who personally took part in the construction of the underground Mir mine and changed design solutions without coordinating them with the designers and Federal Environmental, Industrial and Nuclear Supervision Service (for example, to speed up the construction, the main mine workings were sunk through rock salt halites, which were dissolved in water during the Mir accident). Was it known? We do not know the answer, however, positive conclusions on the amended projects were obtained.

Former MSMU Rector Lev Puchkov gave an interview to Rough & Polished in 2009, immediately before the launch of the Mir mine, in which he predicted the future disaster.

In 2013, concerns about the fate of the mine and the likelihood of an accident were also expressed in an interview with Rough & Polished by Vladimir Dyukarev, a former ALROSA CEO. Everyone understood everything.

Who is to blame for the accident occurred at the underground Mir mine in August 2017? It is strange and unfair to place the responsibility for the August 2017 accident on the new ALROSA management, which came to the company a few months earlier. These accusations sound even more unfair from the lips of the person who, together with his team, was behind all the engineering solutions at the Mir mine.

Who is to blame is a question to court. But what to do is a question important for the future of ALROSA, because its future is in fact underground mining.

Sergey Goryainov, Rough&Polished