Ukrainian Mines Face Bleak Futures

GORLIVKA, Ukraine -- A pack of dogs wandered through the empty Kocheharka mine, their white fur, like the nearby buildings, tinted gray by coal dust.

"It used to be a very crowded place -- many people were going down to the mine, coal was transported up, there were a lot of trucks around. But now it looks like cemetery," said Mykola Babych, chief engineer at the Kocheharka mine in the center of the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlivka.

"Every morning I wake up, and I think -- I don't want to go to work and see such a dead place."

Coal mining in the former Soviet republic has a history dating back 200 years when coal was first discovered in the country's eastern Donbass region, then part of the tsarist empire.

In the last two centuries, Ukraine has mined about 10 billion tons, making the Donbass one of the world's largest coal producing areas.

But the government plans to close 80 of 250 mines by the end of the century. Last year, coal production was three times less than the 200 million tons Ukraine produced in the 1970s.

The Kocheharka mine is the second-oldest mine in Ukraine, founded 130 years ago by French businessmen who were major investors in the Donbass' "coal rush."

The mine was the site of an anti-tsarist revolt in 1905. Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks launched their uprising in the Donbass mine in 1917.

Seven decades later, Kocheharka was once more at the edge of change, this time leading a wave of strikes in 1989 that shook Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's already tenuous grip on a crumbling union.

"This mine was always explosive. Even in Soviet times the KGB kept saying too many politically minded miners were working here," Babych said. "That's why they watched this pit closely. Its closure will end a long history."

It still contains 14 million tons of coal but at a depth of more than a kilometer the pit no longer makes economic sense in a country suffering from the transition to a free market.

Pavlo Ivanov, deputy head of the state-owned organization that handles mine closures, said coal production at pits marked for closure was three or four times -- in some cases eight times -- above the world average.

Nevertheless, "a mine is like any other living organism -- a birth, childhood, adult life and death. You have no choice but to close old pits," Ivanov said. Ivanov also said that out of the 1.6 billion hryvnas ($783.1 million) required in 1997 to 1998 to push forward the closures, his agency received only 20 percent.

Ukraine obtained a $600 million loan from the World Bank at the end of 1996 to reform its coal industry, but a second tranche has been held back.

"They [the World Bank] were not happy with the way we spent this money," said Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Tyhypko. "Unfortunately we simply paid the miners' long-delayed salaries."

The World Bank also allocated $15.8 million for a two-year pilot project to finance the closure of three pits.

Ivanov said almost half of the money went on paying salaries and trying to maintain a once all-embracing social welfare system.

"The mines under closure have become social care centers," said Ivanov, mentioning tens of thousands of miners who have made claims for workplace injuries.

Ukraine's coal mining industry has an injury record of five dead and 350 injured miners for every million tonnes of coal mined.

Meanwhile, back at Kocheharka, the green shoots seen by Babych are not of recovery but of a grass lawn he plans to plant at the mine. Those blades of grass may be the only improvement the bleak vistas there see.