More on illegal coal mining and energy vulnerability in Ukraine

By Sergio Tirado Herrero

If you were interested in one of my previous blog posts about the documentary film Pit No. 8, here come some additional bits that follow up on some of the topics discussed:

The fate of Yura and his sisters: during the filming of the documentary move, Estonian director Mariaana Kaat got personally involved in the life of the three Sikanov siblings, for whom she even bought the house to which they move in the middle of the film. She has kept on caring for them after the filming ended and has invited Yura to present the film with her in the Ukrainian television. Still, life remains a challenge for them: Yura finished the school, kept on working in the Snizhne pits and for unclear reasons was beaten by his neighbours in November 2012, for which the film crew opened an online donating platform to help pay the medical care he required; Ulyana moved to Sevastopol and Julia was sent to an orphanage – see updates on a dedicated Facebook site of the film.

Crew with childrenThe Sikanov subling with the Pit No. 8 crew. Source: https://www.facebook.com/Pitnumber8

Illegal coal mining, going big and shady: Pit No. 8 primarily portrays the lives and deeds of young  Yura, his friend Dima and a few local miners who put themselves in risk by working  in poorly dug and maintained pits in the backyard of their houses or in the forest. For these small-scale informal miners, the coal thus obtained is a source of domestic heat at their homes and also a source of income when sold.  But the documentary also refers to professionalised businesses with pit owners who invest in equipment, hire local men as miners and sell coal at a commercial scale. In some case, these enterprises have turned into large firms that extract and sell large quantities of coal illegally but that are allegedly tolerated by local the Ukrainian authorities.

The activity of some larger kopanki (illegal pits or mines) is putting the life of small rural communities in the Donbas areas under great strain. One of the worst cases apparently is the village of Severnyi, near the Ukrainian-Russian border, where the situation, as reported by the Ukrainian blogger  Stanislav Kmet, gets as bad as this: “[mine] owners have all the power over the village. The local population are deprived of their rights, law enforcement officials neglect their duties, the local authorities keep silent and pretend nothing is going on. Coal entrepreneurs shamelessly engage in grabbing the lands that are rich in coal, digging up nearby forests, ruining people’s houses.” According to the same source, pits are open right on people’s backyards, with some cases of local inhabitants being forced to leave their homes and even receiving death threats threatened when confronting the miners.

Truck

Trucks loaded with coal pass by every few minutes in the village of Severnyi, Eastern Ukraine. Source: Stanislv Kmet (http://frankensstein.livejournal.com/365646.html)

As a local activist of the village of Severnyi interviewed by Radio France Internationale (RFI) explains, “in the 1990s, illegal mines was [the] business of poor people. They dig the coal and they burn it for their houses. But later gangsters and mafia saw that this business can get a big profit. And then they took control.” Apparently this also includes officials of the regional administration and local policemen. There are also rumours that people close to Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich are benefiting from the illegal coal business. However, these profits would be being done at expense of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and owner of legal mines and the region’s football club Shakhtar Donetsk. Akhmetov, himself the son and brother of Donbas miners, has traditionally supported Yanukovich though his loyalty may come to an end if the kopanki go on damaging the prospects of Ukraine’s legal coal industry.

Amidst allegations of widespread corruption and involvement of local and national authorities, the illegal mining sector is thriving. According to Mihailo Volynets, head of Ukraine’s Independent Miners’ Union interviewed by BBC last April, illegal mines currently produce 6.5 million tonnes of coal, or 10% of Ukraine’s output. Coal is sold (and laundered) through legal mines and therefore it is suspected to be benefitting from government subsidies to national coal production. However, the illegal sector may be dumping legal mines, which are being forced to close because kopanki produce cheaper coal as they do not pay taxes, do not comply with health and safety regulations and attract the workforce of legal mines.

A look at the other end of the pipe: most district heat in Ukraine is produced in natural gas- and coal-fired plants and boilers. In spite of the relatively low district heating tariffs, which are partially due to subsidised fuel prices but are nevertheless putting local district heating companies on the verge on bankruptcy, there is evidence about the unaffordability of this (and other) sources of domestic heat in Ukraine. EVALUATE team members Saska Petrova and Stefan Bouzarovski have recently published a study on perceived thermal comfort in Stakhanov, a post-socialist city of the Donetsk coal basin named after Alexey Stakhanov , the Donbas miner and Soviet celebrity of the 1930s. Their findings indicate that over 40% of the 3,000 urban respondents of the sample, many of which live in Soviet era houses connected to district heating, declared to be living in a dwelling that was either ‘tolerably cold’ or ‘too cold’ in the winter. This result illustrates the magnitude of self-reported energy poverty in urban settlements of the Donbas area. In combination with the reported dysfunctions of the (illegal) coal extraction industry, the paper contributes to drawing a more comprehensive picture of the complex, defective system of energy resources utilisation of the Donbas-Donetsk coal region of Ukraine

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