MAC: Mines and Communities

Ukraine: the world's deadliest coal

Published by MAC on 2011-08-08
Source: Kyiv Post (2011-08-05)

Anger follows in wake of national tragedy

It was one of the worst mining accidents occurring during the past year - and it thrust citizens of the Ukraine into a day of national mourning.

Just over a week ago, at least 27 (the latest report says 28) workers died at the Sukhodilska-Skhidna coal pit , following a massive methane gas explosion.

As already pointed out on MAC, the mine was owned by the country's richest individual, Rinat Akhmetov, who was quick to acknowledge the scale of the tragedy and offer compensation to the victims' families. See: Ukraine coal mine disasters claim at least 27 lives

But Akhmetov tried to exculpate himself by referring to "incredibly complicated" working conditions in the country's coal mines - as if these could justify his having allowed mining under such appalling conditions in the first place.

According to statistics published in the capital's Kyiv Post last Friday, on average each million tonne of coal extracted at the country's dark pits claims two lives.

Even in China - with by far the worst overall official record of coal-related fatalities - the  rate is 0.7 deaths per tonne. In Russia it is 0.2; and a tenth of this (0.02) in the United States.

The newspaper points out that: "[O]paque dealings - such as the sale of coal at below-market prices through murky intermediaries - mean that state and private mines rarely receive the capital investments needed to make them safer and increase the wages of miners".

A week after the killings, a surface worker at Sukhodilska-Skhidna, Ihor Smetanin, was interviewed on video by the Kyiv Post.

He delivered a passionate indictment of conditions at the mine - including the exploitation of young women, employed to pick up coal - and he placed responsibility for the disaster firmly on the shoulders of Rinat Akmetov and his management.

Coal miner: ‘People are expendable'

Kyiv Post

5 August 2011

Editor's Note: The following is a partial transcript of an interview given by Ihor Vladimirovich Smetanin, a wagon driver at Rinat Akhmetov's Sukhodilska-Skhidna coal mine, where at least 27 miners were killed in a methane explosion. Smetanin blames the greed of mine owners and managers for deadly working conditions.

"The coking coal costs huge money and people are expendable. They will blame the mountain master who died and all will be okay. Please show this. I know I probably have no chance for working here after this, I am now jobless, but I want you to show this.

"Yesterday I helped bringing up the dead guys to the surface. I cried half a night after this. I overheard the conversation [that] there was five percent of methane, instead of a half-percent. If there is a leak, nobody leaves. They just add some fresh air and keep working. Otherwise, you would lose your job.

"I'm paid Hr 1300 for a hellish job in the shaft, where there is a lot of coal dust and no irrigation of air.

"In winter time, the shower has no heating. There are no robes, nothing.

"We get [used] like animals. It's minus 30 outside. You have to wash yourself in cold water, you come out - there is no heating. Your robe gets covered with mould.

"You work so hard, you sweat really bad. If you sit down [take leave], you are out in the dump for Hr 800 a month. If you unzip your robe, you also go to the dump, or you have to pay Hr 2,000-Hr 3,000 [as a bribe] to get better treatment.

They pay kopecks and take back everything they give. I want to tell them, take my robe, take my life, my shoes. What else do you want from me? The shaft [where the accident took place] is 150 meters. Can you imagine what kind of methane concentration there is?

"But they want eight, six layers of coal from there. There is not enough money for them!

"Those girls who work picking up coal get Hr 1,000 working in this dust.

"I saw those dead guys. They had no shoes. One was missing half a head. I worked the whole day, but in the evening I collapsed and cried till three in the morning. I never cried at anyone's funeral. I am really sorry for them as a human. Really sorry.

"And they died because [they tell us] ‘Come on! Faster! Give us coal output. Give us new shaft! Give us millions!' Do you understand? This is it.

"My name is Smetanin Ihor Vladimirovich. I have worked here for three years."


Deadly Greed?

by Vlad Lavrov

Kyiv Post

5 August 2011

Three deadly coal mine accidents - killing at least 40 men - have sparked fresh debate over whether the billionaires and government officials who control Ukraine's dangerous workplaces are more interested in profits than safety.

The accidents occurred within a week of each other:

On July 29, a methane blast claimed 28 lives at the Luhansk Oblast Sukhodilska-Skhidna mine owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the nation's richest man;

The same day, 11 were killed when the 70-meter elevator tower collapsed at Bazhanova mine in Donetsk Oblast's Makiyivka;

On Aug. 4, a methane leak killed at least one worker and injured more than 20 others at the Krasnokutska coal mine in Luhansk Oblast.

Ukraine's coal mines are notorious for their outdated equipment, terrible working conditions, paltry pay and high mortality rates.

Moreover, experts note that opaque dealings - such as the sale of coal at below-market prices through murky intermediaries - mean that state and private mines rarely receive the capital investments needed to make them safer and increase the wages of miners.

"The coal mine owners, including Akhmetov, are not super generous when it comes to modernizing the mines," said Yuriy Korolchuk, an analyst at the Kyiv-based Institute of Energy Studies. "They see [the coal mines] as a resource to exploit for as long as they can. The only time they really invest considerable amounts into safety is after a chain of deadly accidents - and they do so to avoid scandal."

Mykhailo Volynets, the head of the Independent Trade Union of Coal Miners and a parliament member in opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc, rated Akhmetov as the best in the nation in terms of caring for miners and investing into his mining businesses - but only in comparison to other domestic oligarchs and business owners.

Yet that's not saying much.

Volynets said that coal mine accidents have claimed 80 lives so far this year.

According to figures from the United Nations and Volynets, Ukraine's mines rank among the most deadly in the world. On average, each million ton of coal extracted at the country's deep and dark pits claims two lives. In China, the world's largest coal producer, the comparable rate is 0.7 deaths; in Russia, 0.2 and 0.02 in the United States.

Volynets said the grim official fatality figures are not the whole picture. The industry's workers are plagued by injuries rarely counted, he added.

The methane gas blast at Akhmetov's Sukhodilska-Skhidna mine was the deadliest mining accident in recent years, attracting widespread attention from experts, authorities and the public.

It even triggered a rare public rebuke of mine owners by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, which came in response to a video interview with Ihor Smetanin, a wagon driver at Akhmetov's Sukhodilska-Skhidna.


Akhmetov statement

Kyiv Post

5 August 2011

Editor's Note: The following is a statement issued Aug. 4 by the press service of billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, owner of the Sukhodilska-Skhidna coal mine in Luhansk Oblast where 27 workers were killed in a July 29 methane gas explosion.

"Rinat Leonidovich personally controls the two most important issues:

"First, is the maximum support and help to the families of bereaved coal miners, help to the injured coal miner, who is currently at the hospital, help to every child in the families. Not a single problem will remain unattended. Mr. Akhmetov personally controls the financial aid to every family and all the needs that these families might have as the result of the awful tragedy.

"Second, no less important issue, that is under personal control of Mr. Akhmetov is the maximum possible outfitting [of the] Sukhodilska-Skhidna coal mine, and all the other coal mines that are part of the System Capital Management Group, with the most modern equipment, which provides for maximum safety. This work is being done constantly and doesn't stop for a minute.

"Mr. Akhmetov perfectly realizes that the working conditions of coal extraction on Ukrainian mines are incredibly complicated. Ukrainian coal industry is characterized by incredibly difficult mining and geological conditions: 90 percent of the beds are dangerous in terms of the gas, 60 percent - in terms of the coal dust, almost every fourth - prone to spontaneous combustion. Coal miners at around 35 Ukrainian coal mines extract coal more than one kilometer deep.

"That's why investing in the most modern infrastructure and technology to ensure safe labor is the main task for the holdings' managers. SCM constantly invests into coal mines' modernization and labor safety. And will keep investing, to make coal miners' work safe to the maximum!

"All profit that SCM incurred in 2010 ($464.5 million), according to the shareholder's decision will be spent on the development and modernization of production. Last year, $99.7 million (62.6 percent higher than in 2009) were spent on labor protection and industrial safety.

"The task that Mr. Akhmetov gave the management and the implementation of which he controls personally - to make honorable coal miner's work maximally safe.

"Currently, all the services are working on it today 24 hours a day."

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