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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death and the Donetsk Miner

APCoal miners standing in a lift at Donetsk's Maxim Gorky pit on Dec. 1, 2004.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- When the drill reached the methane pocket more than 500 meters underground, a large flame lit up the pitch-dark coal mine, raising a cloud of steam and dust and coming within a whisker of the miners.

"The heat singed our faces, but fortunately it disappeared as quickly as it came," said Dmitry, 47, who works in one of Donetsk's state-owned coal mines. "I felt death caressing me, but for the first time in my life I welcomed the uncertainty. We looked at each other. We cried for joy, we were alive."

In the mines, methane is an ever-present danger, and Dmitry said that when the drill was switched off, miners heard the gas hissing. "The gas concentrates in air pockets, or between the fissures of the coal. As it's lighter than air, it's extremely explosive," Dmitry said, looking at the bruises left by the explosion on his calloused hands.

Dmitry and the other miners with him escaped with just a few burns and a lot of stress, but said they were determined to keep working. They earn $200 per month.

"I thought that I was going to die -- or worse, that I would be injured and not be able to go to work again. I need the money to feed my family," Dmitry said.

Dmitry asked that his last name and the name of the mine where he works in Donetsk not be published, saying he was afraid he could lose his job.

The 450,000 miners who work in Ukraine's official coal industry have some safety protection, unlike their counterparts who work in the country's illegal mines, but it is still poor. Their lives depend on good ventilation systems that pump out the deadly methane, but numerous safety violations, negligence and worn-out equipment make the Ukrainian mining industry one of the world's most dangerous after China.

According to Mykhailo Volynets, the head of the country's Confederation of Trade Unions and a member of the parliament's energy committee, more than 75 percent of the country's 200 coal mines are classified as dangerous. Since 1991, about 4,300 miners have been killed in mining accidents in the country.

Ukraine's coal industry, which has been in a critical state since the Soviet collapse, survives mainly due to subsidies from Kiev, despite having reserves of 37 billion tons. Subsidies in 2003 and 2004 totaled $2 billion but were insufficient to maintain safety standards.

In November, President Viktor Yushchenko said some state-owned mines would be privatized this year as part of an $800 million rescue plan. The Donetsk miners, however, said the money would not be enough.

Dmitry, with dozens of others from his mine, went to a rally in Kiev in October to demand more investment in the industry. "We tried to make our voices heard, but Kiev doesn't care about what happens in our region," he said.

The industry suffers from extremely low productivity, according to the World Bank. Under a 1996 World Bank-funded program to reform the coal industry, many of the country's profitable mines were privatized, but the result was dozens of mine closures and mass unemployment in many areas.


Miners leaving the coal face after their shift. About 4,300 Ukrainian coal miners have died in accidents since 1991.

"The program should have restored order in the industry and helped the country to privatize the mines, but more than 50 mines were closed and the money just disappeared in the pockets of our bureaucrats in charge of the restructuring," said Svetlana Samoilyuk, an expert with the Association of Donbass Mining Cities, a nonprofit lobby group.

According to the World Bank, the $14 million allocated for the creation of new jobs for former miners was misused.

"According to the program, Ukraine should have created stock companies and the miners should have been given shares in the industry, but this never happened," Samoilyuk said. "People were left with nothing." As a result, Volynets said, most mines are now outdated, and prospective private buyers are scarce.

"Reforming the mines is one of the main problems faced by Yushchenko. The government cannot close them, since unemployment would soar, but it cannot keep them all open, either," one government official said, on condition of anonymity. "The mines just keep swallowing money."

Dmitry said that he did not like his job, but that after 27 years of digging coal, he had few prospects in Donetsk.

"I know I put my life in danger every day I go down the mine, but I have no choice," he said. "I'd be very unlikely to find anything else."