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Ukraine: For Ukraine's Miners, Demand And Dangers Mounting

Miners go back to work in Zasyadko, one day after the accident happened (AFP) November 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As the country marks three days of mourning, Ukraine today buries the first victims of a coal mine blast that so far has claimed 89 lives. Another 11 miners are still missing since the November 18 explosion and are feared dead.

Deadly methane blasts are not rare in Ukraine, which is the world's second-deadliest country for miners after China. But the disaster at the Zasyadko mine, located near the eastern city of Donetsk at the heart of the country's coal industry, is the worst of its kind since Ukraine's independence.

Miners and their families are pinning the blame squarely on the government, which they say has done little to improve miners' safety in its drive for greater productivity.

"An accident like this could have been prevented if the state had carried out its responsibilities properly and controlled the situation in the industry," says Mykhaylo Volynets, the chairman of Ukraine's independent trade union for miners.

The country's coal industry, Volynets claims, is riddled with "corruption and irresponsible behavior" at the managerial level.

Dangerous Labor

Ukraine's run-down coal pits are among the most hazardous in the world. The Zasyadko mine, despite being one of the country's largest and best-equipped, has still been plagued by a string of disasters: 125 miners died there between 1999 and 2002.

A number of miners said they intended to quit their jobs at the Zasyadko mine after the deadly blast. But the mine's leadership is likely to find quick replacements. In economically depressed eastern Ukraine, coal mining for many remains the only source of income.

Mykola Surhai, who served as a Ukrainian coal minister during the Soviet era, says mining safety has deteriorated since the 1991 breakup of the USSR.

"New mines have to be built, equipment should be upgraded, funds should be allocated for protection and new security equipment," says Surhai. "There used to be a law controlling work in the mining sector and other industries. All controlling organs were guided by this legislation and security rules. These were compulsory for all."

Volynets agrees, claiming the number of mining deaths in relation to the volume of coal produced has tripled in Ukraine since the country gained independence.

"It's become worse, much worse. The system of work has disintegrated, particularly the work safety system," he says. "The coal industry is plagued by poor funding, bad management, a low level of responsibility for security, and a lack of governmental will to fix the problems. So these accidents repeat themselves over and over."

Paid To Produce

Part of the problem is that Ukrainian mines are deeper than average, usually running more than 1,000 meters underground. The danger is compounded by routine safety violations. In the country's now mostly private mines, workers are paid by the amount of coal they extract and often disable gas-detecting devices in order to continue work.

The government has pledged to pay relatives of the Zasyadko victims about $20,000 per miner in compensation. But this has done little to soothe the grief and outrage sparked by the most recent tragedy.

Serhiy Harmash, an independent Ukrainian journalist, says miners will continue dying unless money-hungry officials shift priorities.

"If this mine continues to function, I'm convinced more people will die. People have been dying there, and lessons still haven't been learned," says Harmash. "Now we have another accident. If nothing is done, people will continue dying. I think that's what is going to happen, because for our so-called leaders, money is more important than the lives of simple workers."

President Yushchenko has criticized the government's safety record

Ukraine is unlikely to follow in Europe's footsteps and move away from its coal industry, which currently accounts for 95 percent of the country's energy sources.

During a visit to Donetsk on November 19, Yushchenko criticized the government for the poor safety record in mines. But he said coal production will nonetheless remain a top priority for Ukraine.

"Ukraine's coal reserves amount to some 175 billion tons. This represents energetic security for more than one Ukrainian generation," Yushchenko said. "The coal industry has been a priority over the past century, and I'm convinced it will remain a national priority for many more years."

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose stronghold is based in coal-rich eastern Ukraine, sought to minimize his government's responsibility in the tragedy.

"Not a single mine in the world is safe from such incidents," he said during his visit to the Zasyadko mine. The government, he said, is "definitely" working to increase coal production.

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)

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