Donbas on verge of environmental disaster over toxic groundwaters in abandoned mines
The Ukrainian government has lost control of dozens of coal mines in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regionsSnapshot from video
During the Soviet era, the Donbas – short for Donetsk Basin – was a crucially important hub for heavy industry. Tens of thousands of people worked in the more than 200 coal mines that operated across the region.
The mines, once the beating heart of the region now represent a looming environmental catastrophe, Veronika Melkozerova wrote for NBC News.
Across the Donbas, neglected and abandoned mines are filling with toxic groundwater, environmentalists warn. The water, filled with heavy metals and other pollutants, threatens to contaminate the drinking water from rivers and wells in the area, as well as the surrounding soil, making the land unfit for farming.
Meanwhile, dangerous methane gas from the mines is being pushed to the surface, threatening to cause earthquakes and explosions.
In recent decades, many of the mines in Donbas have shut down, sinking the region into economic depression. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 brought even more devastation.
Vasyl Chynchyk, the head of Toretsk’s Civil-Military Administration, told NBC News that out of the seven mines that once surrounded the city, only two, the Tsentralna and the Toretska mines, are still operational.
To prevent disaster, local authorities have had to continually pump water out of the mines.
“If we drown, Tsentralna will drown after us,” said Yuriy Vlasov, an engineer at the decommissioned Nova mine, which now serves as a pumping station. After that, toxic water will flow into the Kryvyi Torets River and the Siverskyi Donets River, “where the whole Donbas drinks,” he said.
“Our only option is to keep pumping the water out.”
The Ukrainian government has lost control of dozens of coal mines in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Eighty-eight out of 121 mines currently in existence in the Donbas are now controlled by Russian-backed forces, according to Ukraine’s energy ministry.
Ukrainian officials told the United Nations in February that the Russian-led groups were closing a number of mines without the necessary preparations to make them safe. The Trilateral Contact Group is working to facilitate a resolution to the conflict in the region.
“You can’t just close a mine and forget about it, because the risks are too high,” said Yevhen Yakovlev, a hydrogeologist with the National Academy of Sciences. “Mine waters will rise, pollute the drinking water and destroy the soil.”
Serhiy Pylypets, a miner at the Tsentralna mine, said that battling water is a constant part of the job. The deeper that miners dig, the more water comes in through open shafts and from underground rivers and other water sources.
Because of this, the process of closing a mine typically requires years of preparation. And even after mining operations cease, water from the decommissioned mine must still be continually pumped out.
Ukrainian experts say the self-styled authorities in the occupied areas have stopped pumping water out of at least a dozen mines and have not allowed them access to the sites to monitor the situation.
“According to our measurements of the water levels in the region, the pumping stations there [in occupied parts of the Donbas] are out of order,” said Viktor Yermakov, an environmental scientist.
Yermakov said one mine in the occupied area of Donetsk province is of particular concern: the Yunkom, which he named one of the most dangerous in the region.
In 1979, Soviet authorities conducted a controlled nuclear detonation inside the mine, leaving a potentially radioactive capsule some 3,000 feet underground. The mine was closed in 2002, but pumping stations continued to keep the mine free of water.
A 2017 report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that water drainage operations at Yunkom and more than two dozen other mines in the Donetsk region had been disrupted during the conflict. And in 2018, the Russian puppet authorities in Donetsk ruled that the Yunkom mine would be flooded, due to a lack of financing needed to continue pumping the waters out.
Yermakov said this decision put the whole region in danger of radioactive contamination.
“The radiation may have already infiltrated the drinking waters of the region,” former President Leonid Kravchuk told the UN in February. “The Donbas is on the verge of environmental disaster, caused not only by war, but also by environmental pollution.”