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Ukraine: A Journey To The Center Of The Earth (Part 2)

The Ukrainian coal mining industry has been in decline for a decade and has a horribly high fatality rate. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky went to Ukraine's eastern, coal-rich Donbas region to talk to those involved in the industry. In this second part of his two reports from Donetsk, Krushelnycky descended deep below the ground to report from the bowels of a coal shaft.

Donetsk, 9 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The process to enter the Chelyuskintsiv mine begins by shedding normal clothes and changing into white shroud-like undergarments and "putees" -- bandage-like cloths that replace socks -- under rubber boots and heavy trousers.

The first part of the descent is by a lift that descends for seven minutes at speeds of up to four meters per second to a shaft 880 meters below ground. A further descent is made by walking through tunnels, parts of which are filled with pools of water.

The tunnels are like ruined metro shafts supported by arched steel girders, many of which are twisted and bulging from the weight above them. Electric lights on helmets reveal wooden props and rafters helping the metal girders.

Some rafters hold mounds of gray powder. That is to lessen the hazard of fire by a technique called "rock-dusting," which uses an inert powder to neutralize volatile coal dust. Only some 30 Ukrainian mines can afford the technique.

As the depth increases, the passages became narrower and the temperature rises. Many of the miners work stripped to the waist, bathed in sweat that cuts white rivulets through the black dust that cakes their bodies. They can lose 3-4 kilograms in weight through sweating on their six-hour shifts below ground.

The final stretch is through a narrow opening into a shaft a meter high that demands crawling and sliding to negotiate. Here is the mine's most prized possession -- a huge propeller-like instrument that gouges out coal as it moves for hundreds of meters following the steeply sloping seam of coal, with a fierce roar like a giant locomotive engine, along a track attended by miners who follow, scraping away at the seam with wooden-handled shovels.

The conditions the miners work in look hideous, although this mine is considered average. It is by no means the worst.

Even so, the cramped, narrow shafts near the coal face can only be negotiated slowly and in single file. A quick escape in case of emergency would be impossible.

The administrator of the Chelyuskintsiv mine, Oleksandr Potapenko, says in some mines, workers still have to dig coal out with picks and shovels at much deeper levels than at his. Potapenko was honest in showing his mine, while other mine operators -- where conditions are far grimmer -- might have been too ashamed to allow access to them.

The miners here at least have access to emergency respirators with a 40-minute oxygen supply and some wore masks as they worked, although the heat forced most to shed their upper clothing and made wearing masks uncomfortable. Miners' unions say emergency respiratory equipment and masks to cut inhalation of coal dust are either absent or faulty in many mines.

"The mine is quite old," Potapenko said. "This year it will reach its 90th year. It's experienced good times and it's experienced bad times. There are only 1,963 people working at this mine presently. They extract 1,450 tons of coal daily which means 39 to 40 tons in a month."

Ukraine's coal-mining industry has been in catastrophic decline since Ukrainian independence in 1991. During Soviet times miners were feted as the vanguard of communist labor and subsidies were poured into keeping open mines that even then were loss-making. Miners enjoyed high wages and had relatively good housing, medical, and recreation perks.

More than 100 mines have been closed over the past decade and outside experts such as the World Bank say most of Ukraine's remaining 197 mines are unprofitable and should close. But the Ukrainian government is worried about the social unrest from traditionally well-organized and politically robust miners and keeps most of remaining mines operating on small subsidies which pay paltry wages -- often in arrears -- but provides little for maintaining or improving safety measures.

Many mines operate at depths of more than 1,300 meters, where much more explosive methane gas is generated. Around 300 miners have perished annually in explosions, fires, and tunnel collapses in the past decade. Some 40 have died so far this year.

But those involved in the industry -- around 800,000 with 470,000 working below ground -- are more fearful of unemployment than the risks they take each time they descend into a mine for wages often less than $150 per month.

Potapenko says only one shaft is working at the mine but it now produces twice as much as at the beginning of the year. He attributed the improvement to private investment, which has paid for machinery and regularly pays employees.

All Ukraine's mines are still state-owned, but many are now effectively controlled by private investors, who usually pay wages on time and provide money for new mining equipment, repairs, and some safety apparatus.

The system has been criticized by some miners' unions and communist politicians who see it as a back-door method to privatize the industry. Even supporters of privatization criticize the system as being corrupt because the state budget still pays for much of the costs of the mines' upkeep, salaries, and whatever health benefits are still provided while the private investor, usually someone with connections to the government, reaps the profits.

However, Potapenko says mines with private investors are about the only ones where miners have any sort of future and where conditions are tolerable. The miners at Chelyuskintsiv in the Petrovskiy area near Donetsk receive up to 1,000 hryvnyas, about $200, a month, depending on the type of work they do. That compares with around just over $100 in some other mines. Potapenko said private investors often show more concern than the state about safety and health measures for the simple reason that they want the mines to be as productive as possible.

"They provide new equipment. They provide new equipment for sinking new shafts. They repair the equipment at this facility. They help quite a lot, very much. It's thanks to them that this mine is still functioning," said Potapenko.

A representative of the miners' union, Nikolai Volinko, says the unions agree some mines have to be shut, but that should be done properly with money to allow miners to seek work elsewhere. But he says it is essential for Ukraine to retain its coal-mining industry.

"If we close these mines, if they [the politicians] close these mines, then anyone who wants to will be able to walk all over Ukraine. Coal is a strategic raw material. It represents economic security for Ukraine. We don't want to surrender being the master of our own land -- to give everything away and then afterwards go begging," Volinko said.

But it looks as if the industry is doomed and, as it dies, so do the cities it spawned. The mines still own huge rest homes and recreational facilities for their workers, but many of these no longer operate. Lack of money means that shops and restaurants are closing down in many mining towns. Those who can have moved out and hundreds of apartments stand empty or are on sale for ridiculously low prices like $300 for a place in towns like Luhansk or Krasnodon.

And whatever the total of dead Ukrainian miners is at the end of this year, the figure will not tell the full story. Many miners will die from respiratory and heart diseases that cannot be treated because of a lack of funds. Many other unemployed miners illegally enter closed mines to dig for small quantities of coal to sell in street markets for tiny prices or to exchange for food. Their wives and children are often involved in the nightmarish enterprise without even rudimentary safety precautions. They also suffer many deaths but fail to make it into the official statistics.