Scoop has an Ethical Paywall
Work smarter with a Pro licence Learn More



Cablegate: Ukraine Coal Mine Disaster: How Corruption Kills

DE RUEHKV #3071/01 3510932
R 170932Z DEC 07





E.O.: 12958: N/A

REFS: A) STATE 159658

B) KYIV 2863


1. (SBU) Summary: A November 18 explosion at the Zasyadko
Coal Mine killed 101 miners in Ukraine's worst coal mine
accident since independence. Subsequent explosions killed
another five miners and mine rescuers. The Zasyadko mine
has one of the country's worst safety records. Its
director, Yukhim Zvyahilsky, has run the mine for decades
and is an influential MP from the Party of Regions. The
GOU has established two commissions to investigate the
causes of the accident, but many observers doubt whether an
impartial investigation will be possible. The head of the
State Labor Safety Committee appears to be struggling in
his attempts to ensure a fair inquiry and has called for
foreign experts to participate. A U.S. expert is already
on the ground to assist investigators. Poor safety
practices were likely to blame for the accident, and the
political favoritism that has allowed Zvyahilsky to remain
in charge of the mine has in this case proved deadly. End

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading

Are you getting our free newsletter?

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.

Largest Mine Accident in Ukrainian History

2. (U) A November 18 methane explosion at the Zasyadko Coal
Mine in the eastern city of Donetsk killed 101 miners and
injured nearly 100 more, marking the single largest loss of
life at a Ukrainian coal mine since the country's
independence. (Note: The Zasyadko tragedy eclipsed an
accident at the Barakova Coal Mine in 2000 that left 81
miners dead. End note.) President Viktor Yushchenko
declared a national day of mourning following the accident.
The Ambassador used his disaster assistance authority to
provide specialized medical equipment to Donetsk hospitals
treating injured miners (refs A-B).

3. (U) Despite opposition from Ukraine's Independent Trade
Union of Miners, which saw eight of its members killed in
the November 18 blast, and despite continued high
temperatures underground, management decided to restart
some operations at the mine on November 21. Two more
explosions rocked the mine on December 1 and 2, killing
five miners and rescue personnel, and injuring about
another 60. After this further loss of life, the mine was
finally shut down (for now) and flooded with water to
prevent any further explosions.

A Mine with a History

4. (U) Ukraine ranks second in the world after China in
terms of the number of coal mine fatalities each year, with
over 4,000 fatalities since independence. There had been a
steady decline in fatalities year-on-year since 2000,
although there was a slight increase to 168 fatalities in
2006, and the Zasyadko accident will push those figures yet
higher for 2007. Zasyadko has earned a reputation as being
Ukraine's deadliest, with 246 fatalities over the last ten
years. Fifty-five miners were killed in a methane
explosion at Zasyadko in August 2001, and another 50 in May
1999, respectively marking the fifth and sixth largest
Ukrainian coal mine accidents to date.

The Man in Charge: Yukhim Zvyahilsky

5. (U) Zasyadko's management structure is unique, as it is
the only Ukrainian mine that is state-owned but leased to a
private entity. (Note: Of Ukraine's 165 legal coal mines,
140 are state-owned and 25 mines have been privatized.
Small illegal coal mines, with poor to non-existent safety
standards, also operate. End note.) Seventy-four year-old
Yukhim Zvyahilsky has effectively been in charge of the
mine since the 1970s, when he rose through the ranks of the
local coal mining hierarchy. Zvyahilsky is an influential
politician, having served as Deputy Prime Minister and
Acting Prime Minister in 1993-1994. He was accused of
corruption and misuse of government funds in summer 1994,
however, and in November 1994 fled to Israel to avoid
prosecution. He returned to Ukraine in 1997 and managed
his political rehabilitation, being reelected to Parliament

KYIV 00003071 002 OF 003

several times, most recently in September's early
parliamentary elections as number 9 on the Party of
Region's list. Zvyahilsky continues to serve as the
director of Zasyadko.

6. (SBU) Post witnessed Zvyahilsky's political influence
first-hand back in the fall of 2006, when the U.S.
Department of Labor-funded Coal Mine Safety Program was
working to provide a specialized drilling machine to the
GOU. Although the program implementers and GOU officials
had already agreed on a pilot site for the drill, the
project stalled when Zvyahilsky personally demanded that
the drill go to his mine. High-ranking GOU officials
appeared coerced to reverse their initial recommendation
and call for the drill to be sent to Zasyadko. Only after
the Embassy strongly objected and when Zvyahilsky himself
admitted that he wanted the drill for production, not
safety, reasons were we able to restart the project in the
originally planned mine.

Investigation to Determine Accident Causes?

7. (U) The GOU has established two ad-hoc bodies to manage
the aftermath of the Zasyadko disaster: a governmental,
political-level commission headed by Deputy Prime Minister
Andriy Kluyev, and an experts-level commission charged to
investigate and report on the causes of the accident.
Zvyahilsky immediately argued that the explosion occurred
due to "unexplained geological forces," implying that the
tragedy was unavoidable. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych
and other allies backed up Zvyahilsky's argument, saying,
"This accident has proven once again that a human is
powerless before nature."

8. (SBU) Many observers fear that the governmental
commission will resist an impartial investigation that
could lay blame for the accident with mine management.
Anatoliy Akimochkin, Chairman of Ukraine's Independent
Trade Union of Miners and a respected authority in Donetsk,
told Econoff on December 7 that he highly doubted a serious
and unbiased investigation could take place. Experts
involved in the investigation, said Akimochkin, were afraid
to give their real opinion due to fear of repercussions at
the hands of the Donetsk political elite. According to
Akimochkin, behind Zvyahilsky also stands Rinat Akhmetov,
Ukraine's mega-oligarch whose steel and power-generation
empire depends on a steady supply of Ukrainian coal,
including from Zasyadko, an important source of coking coal
for Ukraine's steel industry. Sergey Taruta, Chairman of
the Board of the Industrial Union of Donbass, Ukraine's
second-largest steel producer, told Emboffs that one
leading coal mine expert had already been thrown off the
investigatory commission for arguing that the accident
resulted from negligence.

9. (SBU) On December 7 Econoff asked Serhiy Storchak,
Chairman of Ukraine's State Labor Safety Committee, the
lead GOU agency in ensuring workplace safety, if he could
guarantee that the investigation would be impartial.
Storchak essentially ducked the question, saying that,
"unlike some mine owners," his committee was only
interested in the truth. Storchak also reiterated his
strong desire for U.S. and other foreign experts to join
the investigation in order to bolster its objectivity.
(Note: An expert from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health
Administration (MSHA) arrived in Donetsk on December 13 to
aid the investigation. End Note.)

Likely Causes

10. (SBU) Although the investigation is still ongoing, most
analysts believe that poor safety procedures were primarily
to blame for the accident. Zasyadko mine management has
pushed production beyond what should be expected at the
mine, given its remarkable depth (over 1,000 meters) and
high methane concentration. Jerry Triplett, primary
implementer of the USG's Coal Mine Safety Program, noted
that, while Zasyadko currently drills at four longwalls,
state drilling officials would likely drill at only one
under such geological conditions. Valeriy Kagalovskiy,
Executive Director of the Interstate Euro-Asian Association
of Coal and Metals (a CIS body), told Econoff on December 6
that the people at Zasyadko were simply mining "too fast."

KYIV 00003071 003 OF 003

Kagalovskiy blamed Zvyahilsky for not being satisfied as a
millionaire, and wanting to become a "multi-millionaire."
Akimochkin noted that a general problem throughout Ukraine
is that miners are paid based on how much coal they mine,
creating an incentive for impoverished miners to violate
safety rules in order to provide for their families.

11. (SBU) In 2006, 13 miners died at Zasyadko due to a
methane release that occurred because management did not
let a new coal face ventilate sufficiently before mining
began, insisting instead that work begin earlier to
maximize production. A variety of sources have told us
that, in this most recent accident, miners were likely
again pushed to continue their work despite high methane
concentrations, with methane detection equipment either
disabled or ignored by miners desperate to bolster their
paltry salaries. In addition, it appears the miners were
working without a properly functioning ventilation system.
Miners would have used explosive blasting caps to break up
large pieces of mined coal, which likely provided the spark
for a larger explosion. High amounts of rock dust in the
air, which can be reduced by a safety-enhancing technique
called rock dusting (not practiced at Zasyadko), then
likely magnified the explosion, carrying it through a large
portion of the mine and multiplying the number of

Comment: Corruption Kills

12. (SBU) Many Ukrainian mines, and especially Zasyadko,
face dangerous geological conditions. Yet good management
focused on safety procedures can drastically reduce the
chances of major accidents. The neighboring
Shcheglovskaya-Glubokaya Mine, for example, which
experiences the same geological conditions as Zasyadko, has
had a comparatively solid safety record. Labor Safety
chief Storchak recently told the public, "At mines where
the owner genuinely cares about safety issues, the risk of
accidents is minimal." Our impression is that Storchak's
agency is interested in an impartial investigation, but may
be politically out-gunned. For example, Storchak told
Econoff he hoped the United States could "tell us that we
need to hold mine management responsible" for such
accidents. Although we wait for the official verdict of
the investigation, it is difficult to imagine any other
conclusion than that the management at Zasyadko is to blame
for the mine's horrendous safety record and this latest
tragedy. That Zvyahilsky remains in control of the mine,
due to his political connections and most probably the
revenue he is providing to his superiors, is a tragedy of
its own.


© Scoop Media

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading
World Headlines


Join Our Free Newsletter

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.