Cablegate: Deep in a Ukrainian Coal Mine: Closer to Hell Than Any

DE RUEHKV #1127/01 1631216
R 111216Z JUN 08




E.O.: 12958: N/A

REF: KYIV 3071


1. (SBU) Summary: Ukraine's coal mines remain dangerous and
grueling workplaces for the miners who depend on them for their
livelihood. Two recent accidents that included fatalities
underscore the severity of the situation. Econoff visited one
mine in eastern Ukraine and experienced first-hand the hellish
conditions facing miners. Labor safety officials complain of a
lack of funding for safety improvements, and the horrific 2007
disaster at the Zasyadko mine apparently has not resulted in any
substantial changes in government policy. The USG Coal Mine
Safety Program has helped Ukraine to move in the right direction
in recent years by introducing safety-enhancing techniques at
some mines, but much work remains to be done. End Summary.

2. (U) Econoff accompanied representatives of Partnership for
Energy and Environmental Reform (PEER), which implements the
Department of Labor Coal Mine Safety Program in Ukraine, to a
series of meetings and site visits with GOU mine officials
during the week of June 2. The PEER contingent included
consultants Ronald Costlow and Clyde Turner, themselves former
mine inspectors and mine rescue officials from the U.S. Mine
Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

No Policy Changes Following Recent Accidents...
--------------------------------------------- --

3. (U) Econoff and PEER reps met with Mykola Maleev, head of the
State Labor Safety Committee's regional office in Donetsk, in
Ukraine's coal heartland, on June 4. Maleev said that
investigators were still working to determine the cause of the
May 23 accident at the Krasnolymanska mine, which killed eleven
and injured several more. Maleev noted that the GOU needed to
conduct more research on the effects of mining at very deep
levels (i.e. greater than 1000 meters), as Ukrainian mines tend
to be significantly deeper than their American and other
counterparts, and more accidents seem to occur at greater
depths. (Note: The GOU very often blames accidents on
"spontaneous outbursts" of gas and coal dust, a very uncommon
phenomenon in the United States, and one which the Ukrainians
attribute to the greater depths of their mines. End Note.)

4. (SBU) Econoff asked if there had been any changes in policy
in the aftermath of the tragic disaster that killed over 100
miners at Donetsk's Zasyadko mine in November/December 2007
(reftel). Maleev said that the government's investigative
commission had completed its conclusions on the accident and
made a list of recommendations -- including changes to
ventilation systems, limiting production, and meting out serious
disciplinary measures -- but that no substantive policy changes
had taken effect as of yet. Maleev also thanked the USG for
providing an expert to assist with that investigation.
(Comment: Despite hopes that the sheer immensity of the
disaster, along with a new government coming to power, would
shake up the corrupt and dangerous practices at many coal mines,
nothing much seems to have changed. Yukhim Zvyahilsky, the
Member of Parliament who has run Zasyadko for years, received
little more than a slap on the wrist and is still in control of
the mine. Econoff took note, however, that the picture of
Zvyahilsky that had previously been prominently displayed on
Maleev's wall had been tellingly removed. End Comment.)

...And another Serious Accident Occurs

5. (U) A powerful explosion rocked the Karl Marx mine in
Yenakiyevo, Donetsk oblast, on June 8, just days after our
departure from the region. Thirty seven miners were initially
trapped underground, and there were even several injuries on the
surface, as a fire ball from the explosion carried up the shaft.
Rescue efforts continue, with two miners confirmed dead and
twelve further miners still missing and feared dead.

6. (SBU) Marina Nikitina, spokeswoman for the State Labor Safety
Committee's Donetsk office, told the press that the government
had ordered the mine to cease operations on June 6 due to
numerous violations of safety rules. Mine officials initially
reported that the 37 miners underground were engaged only in
repair work, not active mining, but subsequent media reports
cited miners who claimed that management had in fact sent them
to do mining work despite the closure order. (Comment: The
miners' claim is bolstered by the size of the explosion, as it
seems unlikely that methane would be released in such large

KYIV 00001127 002 OF 003

volumes if mining was not taking place. End Comment.)

To the Gates of Hell

7. (U) Econoff visited the Bozhanova mine, in the Eastern
Ukrainian town of Makyivka, on June 5 to examine conditions in
person. Our journey began with a descent of 1,012 meters via
the shaft elevator, followed by a hike to one of the mine's new
development sites. While our hosts explained that this was the
easiest workplace to reach, the trip took us about 75 minutes by
foot over uneven terrain, with the last half hour or so in
temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. (Note: In contrast
to those in the United States, Ukrainian mines generally lack
underground transportation systems to ferry miners to work
sites. Rail, where in place, is often used exclusively for
cargo, not people. End Note.) When we commented that it was so
hot it felt like a sauna, our hosts corrected us by saying it
was more like a Russian "banya" (the preferred choice in
Ukraine) because of the high humidity levels. At our
destination, approximately 1,200 meters below the surface, we
found a group of miners stripped of their clothing, in an effort
to counter the high temperatures, and covered in dust, which is
thrown thick into the air whenever the drill is put into use
against the rock face.

8. (SBU) Econoff asked Vitaliy, the slender but muscular brigade
leader working the drill, how they managed to work under such
conditions; Vitaliy quipped that they were used to the heat and
now often got the chills when on the surface. Vitality
Nikonenko, the Acting Manager of Bozhanova, similarly reasoned
that the miners simply got used to the conditions. Costlow and
Turner, however, argued that the heat, because it would cause
dehydration and fatigue, would undoubtedly be a factor in
increased accidents and injuries. They noted that no American
coal miners would be expected to work in such conditions and
that heat was often considered a warning sign of poor

9. (U) Comment: Econoff, who is somewhat younger than the
average miner at Bozhanova (our hosts estimated the mean age
would be in the late 30s), was seriously winded just by the trip
to the site and back, due to the difficult terrain and high
temperatures. Had our visiting group done six hours of hard
labor once there, as the miners of Bozhanova do every day, a
rescue team may well have proven necessary. End Comment

Lack of Funding for Labor Safety

10. (SBU) Anatoliy Ivanenko, head of the local mine inspectors
based in Makyivka and one of our guides, pointed along the way
to a half-constructed piece of machinery that, once operational,
would apparently significantly cool that area of the mine. The
cooling system required a whole network of pipes, costing
upwards of a million dollars, however, and the funding was
simply not available, said Ivanenko. (Comment: During several
discussions, it was clear that funds, which come from the state
budget and from "intermediary" companies that have stepped in to
help cash-stripped mines, but in return gain control of their
coal sales, are generally available only for activities with a
direct link to production. Whenever a worker safety issue
emerges, the answer usually seems to be, "There's no money."
End Comment.) Ivanenko told us that, although thankfully there
had not been any serious accidents of late, nearly 50 of the
approximately 2,000 miners that work underground at Bozhanova
had been injured during the last five months.

U.S. Assistance Targeting a Need

11. (U) Our recent visit to Ukraine's coal capital was a
reminder of the very difficult working conditions facing the
country's coal miners, and of the major steps needed to improve
labor safety in this sector. Coal mining remains an important
part of the economy and maintains a prominent position in the
psyche of many Ukrainians, especially in eastern Ukrainian towns
where the local mine is the largest employer and, in reality,
the town's raison d'etre.

12. (U) The USG Coal Mine Safety Program has been effective in
introducing Ukrainian mines to practical techniques that can
quickly and easily improve safety conditions for workers.
Although Ukraine regularly records the second-most number of
coal mine fatalities in the world, there has been progress in

KYIV 00001127 003 OF 003

recent years, and fatalities fell by 50% from a total of 316 in
2000 to 157 in 2005. Numbers have been up during the last two
years (168 fatalities in 2006, 268 in 2007 largely due to the
Zasyadko disaster), but we hope that the positive trend will
continue. While we still await a sea change in the mentality of
senior Ukrainian officials, our Coal Mine Safety Program is
helping to chip away at the widespread neglect for mine safety
with new, modern ideas.


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