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Ukraine: Miners Choose Between Joblessness And Extreme Danger (Part 1)

The Ukrainian coal-mining industry has been in decline for a decade and has a horribly high fatality rate. RFE/RL went to Ukraine's eastern coal-rich Donbas region to talk to those involved in the industry. This is the first part of his two reports from Donetsk, the city at the heart of the coal-mining area.

Donetsk, 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- So far, this year has been a relatively good one for Ukrainian coal miners -- only around 40 of them have been burned to death, suffocated, or buried in underground disasters. Many say this indicates that the death toll this year will not climb to the average of 300 killed in the country's pits a year for the past decade.

But aside from prayers there is little to offer confidence that Ukrainian mines will not again this year live up to their grim reputation as the world's most dangerous.

Many of the fatalities are in individual accidents with outdated equipment or poor maintenance, which leads to the collapse of shafts. But publicity and government promises of investigations usually accompany the dramatic incidents where dozens of miners perish in explosions and fires caused by methane gas released from the seams and highly unstable coal dust.

So far this year around 40 people involved in the mining industry have died. Most have died in explosions and cave-ins below ground. Last week, two miners died above ground when gas canisters exploded. Last year 35 miners burned to death in a methane fire at the Ukrayina Mine in Donbas. The previous year 55 died in one explosion, and in 2000 80 miners died in another shaft near the region's main city, Donetsk.

The head of the Donetsk branch of the Union of Coal-Mining Industry Workers, Valeriy Miller, said government investigations and promises of reforms wither away almost as soon as the dead from the most recent tragedy are buried. He said more investigations are not needed because everyone knows the reasons for the accidents: pitifully little government cash for safety measures.

"How can there be safety when in practice about 90 percent of our equipment being used by our underground industry and the above-ground complexes has long needed to be changed," Miller asked. "They are obsolete and that's the reason why we have such a high number of accidents and high number of casualties." He said miners' wages are so low, and often paid so long in arrears, that most experienced safety specialists and engineers have left to find other work. Miller said, "New people are sent down the mines into a dangerous environment with little or no training, so it's no surprise that there are so many accidents."

Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, the country's mines, like most of its Soviet-era heavy industry, have fallen into neglect as widespread government corruption and incompetence compound the difficulties of adjusting to a free market. For miners, the lack of investment in safety measures has increased fatal accidents to an extent that miners routinely gauge the cost of extracting Ukrainian coal in terms of "tons per life" -- around 200,000 tons per life in recent years.

During Soviet times, miners were regarded as an elite among communist workers and were rewarded with relatively high wages, good housing, and better-than-average health and recreation perks. Many of Ukraine's mines, even during Soviet times, were uneconomical, but money was poured into them for propaganda reasons. After independence in 1991, the government stopped much of that money and more than a third of Ukraine's mines have shut, while three-quarters of the remaining 197 are deemed unprofitable.

Union leader Miller said that some mines, in a desperate effort to be profitable, are working at depths of up to 1,300 meters at extremely high temperatures and the technology for minimizing the hazard of explosions from methane and coal dust is only just being developed.

The head of another union, called the Independent Miners Union of the Donbas region, Nikolai Volinko, said the biggest factor causing disasters is the lack of money allotted by the state budget to the mining industry which has led to paltry finances for safety equipment and training.

"Our union, we state this continually, is against this slashing of the budget," he said. "We say that the 2.8 billion-hryvna [$528 million] budget accepted for mines is too little. Ukraine's coal-mining program requires a minimum 5.2 billion hryvna [$980 million]."

Coal production has more than halved from 165 million tons in 1990 to 82 million tons last year. But the Ukrainian government is wary of the consequences of more unemployment among the 800,000 mineworkers. Dissatisfied coal miners played an important role in toppling communism in Ukraine and the current government is aware that that dissatisfaction is now directed at them. So 190 of Ukraine's 197 mines still receive subsidies -- the problem is that they barely cover wages, let alone provide for safety measures.

Yet the fear of unemployment in the Donbas and other regions is immense and means Ukrainian miners are willing to risk their lives in conditions that their Western counterparts have not endured for half a century, for often less than $150 per month.

Even that money is rarely paid on time and every year sees tens of thousands of miners and their families tramping in protest columns hundreds of miles to the capital Kyiv demanding back pay. This month dozens of miners are still on hunger strike deep underground, pleading for payment of wage arrears.

(In Part 2, our correspondent goes into one of the mines.)