In Ukraine’s Donbas, mines are facing flooding — and environmental disaster

In Ukraine’s once proud mining region of Donbas, war, mismanagement and a stretched economy are combining to create an environmental catastrophe in the coal mining industry.

Hanna Sokolova
12 March 2019, 12.01am
Vladimir Lapshyn, for "Towards the end of the coal age in Ukraine?" (Heinrich Böll Foundation). All rights reserved.

“What’s happening with the coal mining industry today reminds me of the 1990s, only now it’s in conditions of armed conflict,” Kostyantyn Ilchenko tells me. By the “1990s”, Ilchenko means the chaotic restructuring and funding problems that gripped Ukraine’s mining industry after the Soviet collapse.

Ilchenko experienced this firsthand. In 1997 he took out a lease on an abandoned mine (“Maiska”) in eastern Luhansk. With a contract from the state-owned Sverdlovantratsit company, Ilchenko rebooted operations at the Maiska mine and signed a contract with an investor. But he soon discovered that Leonid Kuchma’s government had ordered the closure of several mines on the pretext of “restructuring” the coal industry.

According to Ilchenko, the main aim of this exercise was to appropriate the funding allocated for it. In practice, restructuring often meant the closure of potentially profitable mines, while assets and equipment were sold off — leaving mines at risk of flooding and other problems.

In the late 1990s, Ilchenko fought against the closure of the Maiska mine, but its electricity supply was cut off. Later, the site was sealed off and surrounded by security guards. The pumps stopped working and the mine was flooded within two months.

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Today, Ilchenko is head of the military-civilian administration in the frontline town of Zolote, which is split between Ukrainian and uncontrolled zones. And once again he’s fighting against the prospect of mines in the Donbas flooding.

A critical point

“Mines are interconnected systems,” Ilchenko tells me. “If one mine is flooded, water can flow into another mine if they’re linked. This linkage system is an essential safety element. If an accident happens in one shaft, miners can reach the surface safely through another.”

Pervomayskvugіllya, a state-owned enterprise, consists of six mines in the Luhansk region. Three of them are still in operation and so are still pumping water out. The other three are located on the other side of the line of control, where water levels are not being monitored. This is why working mines in Ukraine-controlled territory have been subject to flooding for a year now.

“Groundwater flowed into the Rodina mine, which was already undergoing restructuring, and from there it flowed into the Zolote mine which is linked to the Karbonit mine,” says Ilchenko.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons has also reported mine flooding in government-controlled area. “Take note: the volume of water flowing into the Zolote mine is 940 tonnes an hour,” Deputy Minister Georgy Tuka announced back in summer 2018.

Vladimir Lapshyn, for "Towards the end of the coal age in Ukraine?" (Heinrich Böll Foundation). All rights reserved.

To avoid flooding in working mines in the region, in April 2018, the Ukrainian government allocated 131 million hryvnya (£3.7 million) from its reserves to buy drainage pumps and electric motors. But a month later, the groundwater in the Zolote mine reached critical levels. The energy ministry suspended Pervomayskvugіllya’s then CEO from his post (he was later reinstated by a court).

Then, in summer, the Ministry appointed Oleh Vodopyanov to head the concern. Kostyantyn Ilchenko believes that Vodopyanov is connected to Vitaly Kropachev, who Ukrainian media call the “overseer” for the region’s coal industry – its unspoken boss. The media believes that Kropachev has links with Ihor Nasalik, the head of the energy and coal ministry. In 2017, Ekonomichna pravda wrote about Kropachev and Nasalik’s apparent fight for influence over the reform and future development of Ukraine’s coal industry, as well as the allocation of state funding. Ilchenko also claims that Kropachev has an interest in the closure of mines in Donbas and may well promote this interest via Oleh Vodopyanov, the new head of Pervomayskvugіllya.

“After Vodopyanov’s appointment people started talking about the need to restructure Zolote mine,” Ilchenko tells me. “The new Pervomayskvugіllya management team halted the drainage programme and cleaning equipment project, and is avoiding any contact with potential investors.”

Ilchenko is opposing the mine’s closure on the grounds that it is the main employer in the area: more than half the working population of the town (which is split by a demarcation line) is employed at the mine. He also fears that halting the drainage of the mines could lead to harmful consequences for the local environment.

The environmental threat

According to Ukraine’s Ministry for Energy and the Coal Industry, before the outbreak of armed conflict in 2014, there were 216 coal mines in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. At that time, 123 of them were still operating; the rest were either closed down or in the process of closing down. Out of those 216, 177 mines are in territory out of Ukraine’s control — 91 of them are still operating. In other words, since the start of the conflict, Ukraine has lost control of around 80% of Donbas’ coal mines.

The Ministry does not know how many mines in the area outside its control are still working and carrying out drainage operations. According to Mykhailo Volynets, head of Ukraine’s Independent Mineworkers’ Union, only 28 out of 91 mines are still in operation in the area.

According to a recent report by the OSCE’s Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine, more than 35 mines in the region are either in the process of flooding or have already totally flooded. (You can see this on an online map of environmental threats in eastern Ukraine.) According to ecologists, since 2014 average water drainage has dropped from 800 million to 400-450 million cubic metres per year. The conflict is also impacting the operations of pumping stations in at least 28 mines in Donetsk and 18 in Luhansk.

Vladimir Lapshyn, for "Towards the end of the coal age in Ukraine?" (Heinrich Böll Foundation). All rights reserved.

Mine flooding can lead to methane explosions in cellars and flooding of residential buildings, soil subsidence and, of course, damage to infrastructure in the surrounding areas. And if it rises above the water table, mine water can pollute under and over ground water with iron, chlorides, sulphates and other mineral salts and heavy metals, which directly affect drinking water quality in the region.

“The demarcation line runs practically along the Siversky Donets River,” says hydrogeologist and mining engineer Dr Yevhen Yakovlev of Ukraine’s Institute for Telecommunications and Global Informational Space. This river is eastern Ukraine’s principal source of drinking water. “The government-controlled area is on the right bank, which is lower than the left. If mines in the non-government controlled area are completely flooded, water saturated with salt and other toxic chemicals will flow into the government-controlled area, with worse consequences for people living on the right bank than for those on the left.”

In 2016 a group of Ukrainian specialists, including Yakovlev, conducted testing of residential drinking water sources – wells and reservoirs – on both sides of the demarcation line. The results revealed that drinking water from these sources was far more likely to lead to acute gastrointestinal infection.

Environmental specialist Dmytro Averin, one of the authors of the OSCE report, believes that it is too soon to say how the flooding of mines has affected the quality of drinking water in the region: the effects will become clear over the next 10 years.

“The process for closing down the mines began in the mid-1990s and was very chaotic. At the end of the decade, attempts were made to regulate it with the help of state and international support, but the money still never reached the mines”

“The effect on surface waters will become obvious later, when water drained from the mines enters the river systems,” Averin tells me. “But the effect on well water is already noticeable. We also have information about cases of ground subsidence and methane explosions in cellars. This year we already have subsidence reports from Donetsk, Makiivka, Yenakievo and Shakhtarsk [all in the Donetsk region – ed.], including in residential areas. But we can’t say for sure that it was all caused by mine flooding.”

Environmental specialists are also concerned about the flooding of the Oleksandr-Zakhid mine, whose underground areas were contaminated by waste from the Horlivka chemical plant in the 1980s. Another two mines in the Donetsk region, the Uhlehorska and Kalinin enterprises, are also a potential threat, as they might be used to store waste. Partial flooding of the Yunkom mine in Donetsk’s Yenakieve district might lead to the radioactive contamination of groundwater – in 1979, an underground nuclear test was conducted, in order to lower the pressure in the mountain range.

Ostap Semerak, Ukraine’s Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, has spoken many times of the possible consequences of flooding this mine. “This would have unpredictable consequences for natural resources not only in Donbas and other parts of Ukraine, but for the Black Sea Basin in general, and they will either be dire or really dire,” says Semerak.

The flooding of the mines presents a real environmental threat to the entire Black Sea Basin, says Oleh Savitsky, an expert on climate and energy policy from the Ecoaction Center for Environmental Initiatives: “Effluent from the mines runs into the rivers that flow across Donbas and into the Azov Sea. This process isn’t new, but it used to be controllable: there was no threat of the water being contaminated by chemical waste. As to the Donbas, it could turn into a salt marsh that will be useless for agriculture.

Minimising the harm

Mykola Zhikalyak, head of the Donetsk state regional geological company Donetskgeologiya, sees the main reasons for this environmental threat as the uncontrolled closure of coal mines and issues over water drainage. Another reason could also be the Ukrainian government’s refusal to procure coal from mines outside its control – which has made most of the mines controlled by militants economically unsustainable.

Mykhailo Volynets, head of Ukraine’s Independent Mineworkers’ Union, believes that the main threat to the environment is corruption and a lack of monitoring by the Ministry for Energy and the Coal Industry. “Mine managers employ temporary staff who are happy to get involved in corruption and don’t even think about the consequences for local residents,” he adds.

“The restructuring of the coal industry was corrupt from the very start,” Oleh Savitsky tells me. “The process for closing down the mines began in the mid-1990s and was very chaotic. At the end of the decade, attempts were made to regulate it with the help of state and international support, but the money still never reached the mines. And as we can see from one of the latest corruption scandals, the coal industry has still not been properly restructured.”

Before discussing how to avert an environmental catastrophe, there needs to be large-scale research, says Donetskgeologiya’s Mykola Zhikalyak. He tells me that his organisation has more than once asked the Donetsk regional environmental department to initiate such a project, but the regional authority, which is responsible for allocating funding, has refused to release any cash from the state fund for environmental protection for this purpose. Ukraine’s State Service for Geological and Mineral Resources has also been publicly calling for research.

In 2017 the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories set up a joint working group, consisting of people from the relevant ministries, the Donetsk and Luhansk regional authorities and international NGOs to examine the issue. As the ministry’s press service explained, the group’s work was to consist of putting together reports and presentations.

For Savitsky, the only possible way to influence the mine flooding issue would be to put international pressure on Russia, which is responsible for the environmental and humanitarian crisis in the region. A group of experts, including hydrogeologist and mining engineer Yevhen Yakovlev, is attempting to make contact with mine managers in the separatist areas. According to Yakovlev, experts are currently trying to use their influence to shape the future of the contaminated Yunkom mine. Meanwhile, representatives at the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources say that they, along with the heads of other ministries, have spent the last two years asking the economic subgroup of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine to intervene in the uncontrolled closure and flooding of mines.

“We’ve missed our chance to create a system that would ensure water safety levels,” Yakovlev says, “and the armed conflict in the region has only exacerbated the situation. Ukraine needs to admit its responsibility, develop a state programme, set up an international expert group and start monitoring. Today, despite the already obvious symptoms of environmental damage, this issue has not been taken up at the state level.”

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