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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A job that kills

2 August, 2011 - 00:00

Ukraine observed a day of mourning on Sunday over the accidents that had occurred last Friday at the Sukhodolska-Skhidna mine in Luhansk oblast and the Bazhanov mine in Donetsk oblast, which left 37 miners dead and six injured.

But are black ribbons on flags at half mast and substantial, at first glance, financial aid to families a fair price for the deaths? Everybody will say: life is invaluable and nothing can measure it. However, society and the state still can if not expiate then at least make amends for their guilt over the innocent victims and their relatives. President Viktor Yanukovych spoke of this on The Day the accidents took place. Addressing the governmental commission that is investigating the causes of the explosion at the Sukhodolska-Skhidna coal mine, he said that the Ukrainian authorities, mine managers and owners (he did not mention trade unions) “must join efforts to establish a [mining safety – Author] program which would make sure that all the necessary measures are fully taken.”

“I am drawing your attention to the importance of making unbiased conclusions about this tragedy,” the head of state also emphasized. It is a right piece of advice. But how can it be followed if this commission only consists of governmental functionaries without even one representative of the Independent Union of Coal Miners. Yet, as Mykhailo Volynets, head of this trade union and a member of parliament (BYuT-Fatherland), told UNIAN, the Cabinet is obliged to include into the commission representatives of the trade unions whose members were killed in the accidents. “I have been phoning along the whole line since the very morning to discuss who should be included into the governmental commission. Then I was told: the leadership instructed that you should not be included,” Volynets pointed out and said that only representatives of “puppet” trade unions were included into the commission. “This is why people were, are, and will be dying.”

Of course, not everything depends on commissions. We have had lots of them, but the situation is not improving. Ukraine is known to be among the world’s top three leaders in coal mine injuries and deaths. The territorial department of the State Committee for Mining Industry Supervision inspected Luhansk oblast a little more than a month ago. They spotted 2,800 infractions at 156 coal mines, and, while they were doing this, a fire broke out at Sukhodolska.

The governmental commissions are still working. Criminal cases have been opened and investigation is underway into both accidents. Speaking of what happened at Sukhodolska, Yanukovych said to journalists: “Two versions of the tragedy are being considered. The blast may have been caused by the fault of a mine electric equipment or provoked by the drilling and blasting operations that had been carried shortly before.” The newly-appointed Donetsk governor Andrii Shyshatsky has expressed his version of the accident at the Bazhanov mine: the headframe tumbled down after being flooded with water during the recent downpours.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov visited the blast-stricken Sukhodolska as late as Sunday and, as is the custom, assured us that “the government will make an all-out effort, use funds and research findings to organize safe work in coal mining. Coal is a strategic commodity for us, especially when oil and gas prices are so high. However, we do not need coal at this cost. Therefore, we must see to it that this tough and self-denying profession be safer. The government is going to redouble its efforts to this end,” the prime minister said. In his words, the Cabinet will discuss mining safety on Wednesday. Is it for the first time? And where is the result after all?

Rinat Akhmetov, MP and ma-nager of the Ukraine’s Development foundation, has offered very touching condolences over the tragedy: “I want to express my profound sympathy with the relatives of the dead. I want to tell them that everybody is sharing their sorrow. It is the sorrow of every resident of the Luhansk oblast, the entire Donbas and Ukraine. Search is now in progress for those missing at the Sukhodolska and Bazhanov mines. We are all nursing a hope.” Akhmetov noted that coal is extracted at Ukrainian mines in incredibly difficult conditions and that “we are constantly working to ease them.” “We will continue purchasing the best equipment that will allow us to ensure safety for miners. This by far the most courageous and heroic profession must be safe. This is our top priority today,” Akhmetov stressed and promised to help every family of a killed miner and all those who were injured. (The Krasnodonvuhillia association, which comprises Sukhodolska-Skhidna, has really announced that each of the families of the dead will receive a million hryvnias, the company will take custody of their children, and the injured will be receiving medical benefits until they fully recover.) “We will do our level best,” Akhmetov said in his letter of condolences without saying a word about responsibility that lies, one way or another, with him as one of the end owners of the accident-hit mine.

Meanwhile, the media keep reporting on disproportionate incomes of Ukrainian mine owners, caused by the growth of world fuel prices. For example, the coking coal extracted at Sukhodolska costs about 200 dollars on world markets, while its production cost is only 43-54 dollars per ton. But a mine is not exactly a milk cow. Experts know: if you are too greedy and exceed a certain level of production, the methane, which hates void, will literally explode in the space the miners have opened, and ventilation will be unable to blow it away. Then any spark will suffice to cause a tragedy.

The country’s president also has something to repent of. Kick-starting the administrative reform, he must have forgotten that there are institutions in which it is very dangerous to carry out radical transformations. This applies, above all, to labor safety, where major staff layoffs happened lately. Almost a third of the State Committee for Coal Mining Supervision employees, who are supposed to monitor coal mine safety, quit the job. In addition, this monitoring agency was deprived of independence without too much hesitation and subordinated to the Ministry for Emergencies. Will the government have to revise its rash decisions?

The latest tragedy in the mining industry has livened up its adversaries. They suggest decommissioning the mines and purchasing coal abroad, forgetting that many mines are the economic base of a city, the largest, if not the only, employer. Besides, coal is a strategic raw material of which Ukraine has enormous reserves and which determines the level of this country’s energy security. Ukraine is not in a position, at least today, to discontinue using it. So shall we go on keeping a martyrology of major accident victims? Those include13 in 2006, 101 in 2007, 24 in 2008, 13 in 2009, 37 in the ongoing 2011… And what if this makes miners lose their patience because they go every day to work which seems more like a war where people get killed?

By Vitalii KNIAZHANSKY, The Day