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Ukraine: Can The Country's Deadly Coal Mines Be Reformed?

  • Jeremy Bransten

The deadly fire at a coal mine in Ukraine on 7 July is once again raising questions about safety standards in the industry. Thirty-five miners died in the accident and 12 others were hospitalized with smoke inhalation. Firefighters are still trying to extinguish the blaze 350 meters below ground. Could this tragedy, and numerous others before it, have been prevented? And does coal mining need to be as dangerous a profession as Ukraine's statistics suggest?

Prague, 10 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A special Ukrainian government commission led by Deputy Prime Minister Oleh Dubyna has been formed to investigate the 7 July disaster at the Ukraina coal mine that killed 35 people and injured 12 others.

It is a pattern that has been repeated all too often in recent years, but despite scores of accidents and scores of investigations, the cycle of catastrophe continues, making Ukraine's coal-mining industry among the most deadly in the world.

One year ago, following a similar fire at the Zasyadko mine, which claimed the lives of 54 workers, another deputy prime minister, Volodymyr Semynozhenko, declared that modernizing coal mines would become an immediate government priority. President Leonid Kuchma questioned the wisdom of keeping antiquated and potentially deadly mines open. But in the end, nothing was done.

According to a World Bank study, three-quarters of Ukraine's more than 200 coal mines are ranked in the highest-risk category. Some 300 coal miners died in fires and other on-the-job accidents last year, a dismal statistic that has been repeated every year since 1991. The State Labor Safety Committee says 116 miners have been killed in Ukraine during the first six months of this year.

The question is: Can anything be done to reverse this trend and if so, can Ukraine afford the solution without sacrificing the viability of the industry?

Underground coal mining carries inherent risks and fatal accidents occur in all countries where such mines operate. Aside from cave-ins, the threat also exists of sudden buildups of methane gas sparking explosions. But most Western countries have succeeded in reducing those risks in recent years, whereas Ukraine has not. Norman Jennings, a senior industrial specialist at the International Labor Organization, told RFE/RL a combination of factors is to blame. "The geology is extremely difficult in Ukraine: The mines are very deep, the seams are very thin in some cases, and there's a lot of gas. There has also been, over the years, a lack of investment in both production and safety equipment and also there have been quite a few job losses in Ukraine. And I think that the workforce with the institutional knowledge, if you like, a very experienced workforce, many of those people are gone. And so these things have combined unfortunately to form a deadly cocktail," Jennings said.

Economic realities have prompted some mine shutdowns and layoffs in Ukraine. The government's chronic lateness in paying salaries has also caused some veterans to leave the profession. But more than half a million coal miners remain employed at more than 200 mines in Ukraine, leaving the government in a bind.

The Kyiv authorities are reluctant to close more sites, for fear of causing mass unemployment and possible unrest. But the financial burden of keeping all these mines operational means there are few funds left over for safety improvements, especially those geared toward avoiding devastating fires, which, when they do happen, cause many more fatalities than in Western countries because Ukrainian mines are overstaffed and have not installed up-to-date safeguards.

"Many of the inherent problems in mining have been engineered out, if you like. There is equipment and processes which can prevent accidents from happening or control them. One of the problems in Ukraine, for example, is that the mines are much more labor-intensive than they are in the United States and also they don't use the same types of procedures to stop the spread of fire, so that if an explosion or a fire takes place, where 10 people are working, one would expect the fire to be contained. But it seems that in many Ukrainian mines they don't use the procedures to contain fires and so the fire spreads very quickly through the mine and endangers and indeed kills people who are working away from the source of the fire in the first place," Jennings said.

Methane-gas explosions are responsible for many of the fatalities in Ukraine's coal mines. As underground coal is drilled, methane contained within the coal is released, forming dust that can easily ignite. Up until the early 1970s, the United States suffered from a similar fatality rate as Ukraine's in its coal-mining industry -- primarily due to methane explosions -- until a solution was found called "rock dusting." Joe Pavlovich, a district manager for the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), describes what rock dust is and how it is applied. "It's an inert material, it's limestone crushed to a very fine powder substance that we actually distribute on the walls and floors and roof of mine openings to inert the coal dust that builds up, so that if you have a methane explosion, the coal dust doesn't help to propagate it throughout the mine. It basically extinguishes the explosion when it hits this material," Pavlovich said.

Rock dusting, among other innovations, has helped cut the number of coal-mining fatalities in the United States from 294 in 1961 to 42 last year.

Since 1998, Pavlovich has led a team of experts from the MSHA on seven trips to Ukraine, to start up a pilot rock-dusting program that is now operating, on a trial basis, at 31 Ukrainian mines. "One of the things that we're trying to do with the rock dusting is to basically stop the major explosions that are occurring. That's where we need to start. If you can stop the major explosions, then you can start working on the individual accidents to individual miners. When you have these mass explosions killing several people at one time, that's where we need to start and that's where we needed to start several years ago in our industry, here in the United States. Back in the '50s and '60s and early '70s we were still having major explosions, and so we intensified our ventilation, our rock dusting, and other areas, to try to eliminate those first," Pavlovich said.

The Ukraine program is relatively cheap, having been undertaken so far at a cost of just $1 million for the purchase of 31 rock-dusting machines. Far from being a menace, methane gas can and should actually be seen as a resource that itself can be mined for profit. Pavlovich said the next step after rock dusting will be to try to extract methane from underground coal fields before they are exploited. "One of the projects that's currently being considered would be degasification of the coal seam in advance of mining. We do a lot of that here [in the United States], both in vertical and horizontal drilling, where you drill into the coal seam, or just above the coal seam, and are able to extract large quantities of methane prior to the mining, which makes the mining much safer and also helps to develop the methane field for, perhaps, use as an alternate gas fuel," Pavlovich said.

Despite the challenges involved, Pavlovich believes many of Ukraine's coal mines can be retrofitted to make them safer, so that they can continue to operate, but priorities have to be set. Not all of the country's 200-plus mines can remain operational. "I think a lot of them can be very productive mines and also very safe mines, it's just a matter of looking at those which have the ability to be productive and to produce enough material, enough coal to generate enough productivity and to reinvest into the safety measures to incorporate a good safety program," Pavlovich said.

In a bid to encourage Ukraine to shut down unproductive coal mines so that safety improvements could be targeted, the World Bank last year offered Kyiv a $100 million "social mitigation" loan to cushion the impact of layoffs. After originally agreeing to the plan, the government balked, saying it would not close any more mines. The World Bank withdrew its loan offer.

Yuri Miroshnichenko, of the World Bank's Kyiv office, explained that, "According to this program, a certain number of mines was planned for closure over the next two to three years, but the government all of a sudden decided to almost stop the program of restructuring in terms of the closure of hopeless mines and, as a result, we had to cancel the project."

Now, Miroshnichenko said, the government has once again reversed its decision and gone back to gradually closing unproductive mines. Given globalization and increased foreign competition, current rates of production at some mines, which average 100 tons of coal per miner per year, versus 400 tons in Poland and 4,000 tons in the United States, are just not economically viable.

The World Bank estimates that at least a quarter of Ukraine's 200-plus mines will have to close in the short term. But Miroshnichenko said the loss-making mines are also the most accident-prone, so a shutdown could prove to have an immediate, life-saving benefit. "When you consider the number of accidents in mines, you can see that there is a correlation between the economic situation in a mine and such accidents," Miroshnichenko said.

Pavlovich, of the MSHA, told RFE/RL that economics played an important part in improving safety at U.S. coal mines. "You have to start with the big things first and then work on the individual things and then also work on the human-behavior factors, the work practices. One of the things that encouraged that in our industry is the high cost of accidents. When you have an individual accident because of workman's compensation, law suits, and other things, it's extremely expensive, so the mine operators cannot really afford to have large numbers of accidents and injuries. And the cost of workers' salaries is high to the extent that if you have workers injured, replacement workers are very expensive. So all that comes into play into making a safer environment," Pavlovich said.

In time, such a mechanism may begin to operate in Ukraine. For now, however, a miner's life continues to be undervalued, and those who are killed or disabled by work accidents are eagerly replaced by the unemployed in the economically depressed Donbass region.