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Ukraine: Fatal Mine Accidents Are Common

Ukraine's mine disaster last weekend -- its worst in decades -- underlines the country's woeful status as the world's most dangerous coal-mining country. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports that many Ukrainians blame the repeated tragedies on the government's lack of investment in mine safety.

Prague, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The deaths of coal miners are routine events in Ukraine. Last year, about 300 miners died in accidents, the year before some 360.

But last Saturday's (March 11) explosion at the Barakova mine in east Ukraine's Krasnodon region produced a mortality toll that was high even by Ukrainian standards. There were 81 deaths in Barakova, the biggest single loss of life in the country's coal-mining industry for decades.

At funeral ceremonies earlier this week, both President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko said that everything should be done to prevent a similar tragedy. But Ukrainian authorities have said that before. In cash-strapped Ukraine, it is easier to make such promises than to keep them.

Finding the cause of the Barakova accident was not difficult. Even before a full-scale investigation got under way, Ukraine's emergencies minister declared the accident was a result of notoriously lax safety regulations. Nobody publicly disagreed with him.

Yet while there was much mourning for the dead miners, there was not much public outrage at their deaths. Ukrainians are used to absorbing such shocks in a country where there is often not enough money for food, let alone mine-safety measures.

The head of the Independent Coal Miners Union, Mykhailo Volynets, said there would be, in his phrase, "naturally, more accidents and injuries." In Ukraine, he added, "human life is second to coal -- coal at any price."

Economic analyst Hlib Veshlinsky (of the International Center For Policy Studies in Kyiv) told RFE/RL that the basic reason for tragedies in Ukraine's mines is the lack of money for safety measures.

"The main problem is that, to a great extent, Ukrainian mines are not competitive. Many mines are completely exhausted and should be shut down."

Ukraine's 290 mines are mostly concentrated in a few regions in the east. The lack of investment in modern machinery or safety measures has left them looking like wastelands above ground, visions of hell below. Veshlinsky says a World Bank report estimated that almost half of the country's mines should be closed down.

The Barakova mine, Veshlinsky says, is productive. Yet it has seen no investment in safety measures. Miners union chief Volynets said Barakova does not even have enough lamps, survival kits and gas masks for each of its workers.

Dmytro Kalitventsev is the union leader at Barakova. He says that to increase output, both miners and management turned a blind eye to safety violations. In Kalitventsev's words: "The men themselves break the rules to earn more. People will do anything because the mine is the only employer here. Everyone is afraid of losing their job."

Analyst Veshlinsky says mines can only be shut if money is spent on retraining miners:

"The two main points are [first] that a part of the [mining] industry should simply be shut down. I have in mind those mines which are unprofitable. But in so doing the priority should be to support not the mines, but the mine workers. Money for mine closures should be properly spent to provide new jobs for them. The second point is that there should be privatization of the mines now owned by the state."

President Kuchma has called for parliamentary hearings to examine the overall situation in the mining sector. But Veshlinsky notes that mines employ around half a million people in Ukraine, and to shut half of them will take great political will:

"They are not closing them [the mines] down because the government does not have a definite policy with regard to the industry, what to do with the miners and how to avoid social conflict. In other countries, [too,] the coal industry is one of the most complicated. Britain and Poland faced problems. ... [In Ukraine,] the industry's concentration in one region means it's impossible to swiftly resolve the situation without serious social tension."

The World Bank has already given $300 million to close the most inefficient of Ukraine's mines. The government says 32 have actually closed and that 20 more will shut this year.

The government is also seeking additional aid to accelerate the closure program. But the dangers posed by still open mines are likely to continue for some time.

Barakova union leader Kalitventsev predicts there will be many young men applying for the jobs of those who died at his mine on Saturday. Two days later (Monday), yet another miner died in a nearby mine. His death went almost unreported.