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By John Helmer in Moscow

Ukraine demand for coking-coal weighed against rising death toll in possible decisions to shut down coal mine where 106 miners have been killed and many injured in methane explosions.

Ukrainian miners have proved that when it comes to methane, lightning can strike twice, and thrice, in the same place.

This week, the Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko ordered the suspension of operations at the Zasyadko coal-mine in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine after a third, and fatal, explosion in the mine on Sunday. His political rival, Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich, has also issued a public call for suspending mine operations.

In the latest incident, five were killed, and 66 injured, 9 seriously, according to a local miners’ union source. He told Mineweb there have been three methane explosions at the mine in the past fortnight — on November 18, when 101 miners were killed; on December 1, when there were no fatalities, but 44 miners were hospitalized; and on December 2, when 5 miners were killed. “I can’t tell you if there is any decision to close the mine, but methane concentration seems to be dangerous, ” the union source said.

Yushchenko issued a public announcement that the mine should be shut until authorities determine the cause of the blasts and investigate those responsible. A statement was issued on Monday by the prosecutors’ office of Donetsk. This says that a criminal case has been opened in connection with the November 18 incident. Prosecutors are working to establish whether section 272, chapter 2 of the Ukrainian criminal code was violated; this relates to infringement of safety rules.

But miners at Zasyadko dispute that this, the proximate cause of the three methane explosions at the mine, is the determining cause. A videotape, prepared and posted on the internet by the miners, following the November 18 disaster, claimed that dangerous concentrations of methane gas were chronic in the mine at the 8% level. (Methane is potentially explosive at concentrations of between 5 and 15%). They also claim that gas detection and equipment shutoff systems had been disabled, in order to faciliate what the miners call an extreme mining production plan, impossible to fulfill. The technological sophistication of the mine’s equipment, which has been reported in the press, was suppressed, according to the miners.

The latest western wire service reports claim that Zasyadko is one of Ukraine’s technically most advanced and profitable pits. A local mining source told Mineweb: “They have very old, almost non-operational methane detection equipment, and workers are pushed by [company director Yefim Zvyagilsky] to work without enough security. The problem is that the country needs coking coal for steelmaking.”

Zvagilsky is the chairman of the mine company’s board of directors. He is well-known as an entrepreneur in the Ukraine, a parliamentary deputy, and for five days in September 1993, Zvagilsky was prime minister. He also appears to be the controlling shareholder of the company, though the circumstances in which the state transferred its control of the mine are unclear. Yuri Zayets, head of the Zasyadko coal mine’s trade union, told Mineweb “the owner of the mine is the Ukrainian government. But it landed on to the staff of the mine for operations.” This is disputed by Donetskugol, the state enterprise which used to own Zasyadko. A source there said: “The Zasyadko mine is no longer on the books of our enterprise” The source claimed he was unable to say when it was sold, or to whom.

Mineweb has repeatedly requested that Zvagilsky respond to questions. A secretary at his office said she would attempt to pass questions to him, but Zvagilsky has refused to reply.

Anatoliy Starovoyt, general director of the Ukrainian Coke Association (UkrKoks) told Mineweb that despite the substantial losses of coking coal that would result, he believes the Zasyadko mine should be closed, not temporarily suspended, until the crisis atmosphere, if not the methane, dissipates.

“The approximate losses from suspension of this mine will be 120,000 tonnes monthly,” Starovoyt said, “although I also think the mine should be closed. It is very dangerous, because the depths at which mining takes place are great, and methane concentration is a problem there.”

Starovoyt said that Ukrainian steel makers currently consume 1.5 million tonnes of coke per month; about a third of the volume comes from domestic mines, and the rest is imported. Zasyadko is one of the largest mines for coking coal in the country. It produces about 260,000 tonnes of coal per month, equivalent to 120,000 tonnes of coke.

Planned expansion of steel production in the Ukraine next year is at risk from the closure of Zasyadko, industry sources say. According to Starovoyt, “it is necessary to equip deep-water ports and to import coke from Canada, the USA or Australia.” Steelmaking and the associated coal mines currently generate about 30% of Ukraine’s GDP, and 40% of its hard currency earnings.

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