In the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, we are accustomed to talking about a number of “fronts”: information, social, legal. In those individual battles, there are usually winners and losers.
But there is a "front" on which there are no winners – and that's our environment.
Hromadske previously released the project "Donbas: the new exclusion zone," in which we spoke to geologists, scientists, politicians, and experts to discuss the possible scenario of an upcoming ecological disaster in Ukraine's Donbas region.
Now, we revisited this topic and spoke to hydrogeologist Yevhen Yakovlev again to see how the situation changed nearly two years later.
“Six years have caused irreversible man-made consequences for the already degraded ecology of the Donbas region. The reason for this is the process of massive and uncontrolled flooding of mines, which has already gained catastrophic momentum,” says Yakovlev.
Consequences include subsidence, spontaneous release of gas, local earthquakes and, most dangerously, the ingress of dirty mine water into the soil, as well as into rivers and lakes. According to the scientist, all these factors threaten "the destruction of life-supporting potential of Donetsk and Luhansk regions."
"Coal-coke-metal" or "coal-electricity" are technological chains that were the basis for the industrial complex of the pre-war Donbas.
In these chains, coal is not only the main but also the weakest link. And it was like that even before the war.
In peacetime, there was a moderate decline in coal production. In 1991, Ukraine produced 135 million tons of coal, in the "pre-war" 2013 coal production amounted to 83.7 million tons, 75% of which came from the mines of central Donbas.
The war in the east, as well as the occupation of most of the mines, brought the Donbas coal-mining complex almost to a standstill. This is directly reflected in the environmental situation in the region.
Mr. Yakovlev, the war in eastern Ukraine hit the Donbas coal industry hard. The mines are closing on both sides. However, this was also happening in peacetime. What really motivated this process and what was its starting point before the war?
In the early 2000s, the reason for the massive closure of the mines was that coal mining in some areas began to become economically unprofitable. The equipment was getting old, the area of disturbed rocks and water resistance was increasing. As a result, more and more water had to be pumped out, both in total volume and per ton of coal.
For example, in the peak for the Ukrainian coal industry, 3.5 cubic meters of water were pumped out per ton of coal. Now that production has fallen to 30-40 million tons a year, that amount is up to 25 cubic meters of water per ton of coal. As a result, coal energy output was equal to the work of lifting mine water to the surface.
The situation has become unprofitable: the cost of coal has increased, many mines have become subsidized, and it is simply unprofitable to keep them for the state.
For the first time, this problem was faced by England, then Germany and France, and now Poland and Russia are experiencing similar problems. We have pretty much reached this stalemate in the last decade. The war also accelerated the process of flooding the mines and brought us to a kind of "point of no return".
What is happening with ecology in the region now?
There is an accelerated regional rise in groundwater levels to historic levels in the Donbas. Or to the levels where they were in their original condition before the industrialization of the region in the XIX century.
Most of the mines are either closed or being closed by the so-called "wet" method of conservation. Simply put, water is not pumped or pumped poorly. So it goes up.
This poses a great danger, since Donetsk and part of the Luhansk region are saturated with various cavities underground. When filled, the water will saturate the cracks in the weakened zones of the rocks, activating landslides, new ways of gas release, soil displacements and so on.
You mentioned the "wet" conservation. What is it, in fact?
This is closure of a mine by flooding: the work of the drainage is stopped and conduits are flooded.
But there is an alternative to “dry” conservation. With this model, groundwater level management systems are constantly operating in abandoned mines. That is, the pumping of water at which there are minimal risks to the surface.
When the mines were just starting to close, the flooding option was only chosen because of its cost effectiveness. Indeed, because the dry closure of a mine sometimes requires at least 50% percent of the cost of its construction.
Mine and waste heaps in the area of Joint Forces Operation in the Donetsk region, June 3, 2019. Photo: Valeriy Shmakov / UNIAN
Why was there no expectation that the savings would prove to be utterly uneconomical in the end?
The calculation considered the short-term effect. “Wet” conservation seemed less expensive than regular drainage to officials. Although we now incur greater losses than those at the time. And they will grow even more with time.
So "wet" conservation in reality is fiction?
No, it was a wrong decision. That's scarier.
According to estimates of the former Ministry of Geology of Ukraine, over 1,000 mine shafts, about 600 mines, have been processed through the history of Donbas. But most coal mines are interconnected by horizontal and sloping conduits. Later, water began to "feel at home" along these very paths.
It turned out that the partial closure of the mines caused a virtually complete misunderstanding of the assessment of groundwater flows and their impacts. For example, on the very rivers and wells, from which people drink water.
Whose idea was to implement this erroneous method?
It was first discussed in 1996 under the government of Yevgenij Marchuk. And since the economic situation was unfavorable in all years of independence, officials were alarmed by the high cost of work on a system of safe and controlled maintenance of levels at safe depths. As a result, each government tried not to assume this burden by passing it over to successors.
As a result, problems with raising levels have only grown, and now, mainly due to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, we are in a tight corner.
Do "kopankas" (‘rathole mines’) – illegal mines – play a significant role in the overall picture?
Yes, because it is an additional way of pouring dirty mine water and gas out. Oil, organic matter and other harmful chemical compounds are left in the digs, which no one has removed from there.
The number of illegal mines fluctuates. I believe in the 2,500 figure, based on data from the Institute of Geological Sciences, analysis of images and density of the zone of the coal seams. Mykhailo Volynets, head of the National Miners' Union, spoke of up to 6,000, but the difference is not significant in hydrogeological terms.
What can we expect if the authorities, both in Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics”, further accelerate the flooding of the mines?
If they proceed with the option of "wet" conservation of the whole region, then we can expect further acceleration of flooding, from large mines to "kopankas". And, as a result, subsidence and spontaneous release of gas in all parts of central Donbas.
Bear in mind that water breakouts are already observed in the mines of Pershotravneva (Luhansk region), Toretsk group (Donetsk region), as well as the mines of other associations.
Groundwater, reaching the level of 100-300 meters, weakens the rock mass. This provokes further deposition of the surface, deformation of buildings, communications and more. Since the beginning of the war, sediments and cracks in homes have already intensified in almost all mine towns. In particular, in the settlements above the mines, such as Toretsk or Makiyivka.
Also, do not forget that there are some areas of Donbas where the soil is clay shale. A reverse process is taking place there: clay rocks absorb water and, like soap, "swell". The soil then rises.
Moreover, submerged mines are already entering uncontrolled runoff into surface and groundwater through interconnected aquifers. The surface water condition depends on this drainage. Including that of Siverskyi Donets (major river in the Donbas).
Rock dumps at one of the abandoned mines in an illegal mine in Donetsk region, September 19, 2015. Photo: Victoria Pryshutova / UNIAN
Donbas' powerful industrial potential has always offset its ecology. So, before the war, the region was the first in Ukraine in terms of environmental degradation, and in the world it was classified as one of the most polluting. And now its negative impact on the environment is no less than before 2014.
"The paradox has been that production is smaller, there are fewer discharges but pollution has increased. Because the quality of cleaning has deteriorated, the effluents are no longer filtered," says Yakovlev.
Due to the hostilities, as well as the lack of money to pump water, the mines in the Donetsk region across the demarcation line are being closed and flooded. This water latches onto the mines on the government-controlled areas along the way. As a result, dirty mine water floods existing water intakes throughout the region, making them unsuitable for drinking.
What, in fact, are the mine waters you mentioned previously?
Rising water in the mines concentrates all the soluble elements of coal. These are various compounds of iron, manganese, lead, mercury. Therefore, mine water can sometimes be something like sulfuric acid. In the mines that are already closed, the dirty water simply goes into the soil and surface.
Considering all the factors, including the mines, can we say that the Siverskyi Donets river is doomed to be dirty?
It is no longer possible to bring this artery to the environmental standard.
Firstly, the river coming to Ukraine from Russia is already quite polluted. Mostly because it flows through plowed meadows and fields with waste in the form of fertilizers.
Secondly, even with reduced industrial load, treatment plants perform poorly in most enterprises.
Thirdly, the mines. Their flooding brings more pollution into the water intakes. Into wells, into small rivers, into open sections of the "Siverskyi Donets–Donbas" channel and so on.
I know, for example, in the area of the “Zolote” mine, contaminated mine water is already flowing directly into the Donets river run-off.
This is catastrophic, since 90% of its water is consumed in Ukraine. It is, in fact, impotable, and unfortunately no technology can bring it to drinking standards.
So the self-proclaimed “DPR” and “LPR” are poisoning themselves by flooding the mines?
As for drinking supplies of the occupied Donbas, it is an extremely interesting situation, in particular, with the "LPR".
According to my personal data from my colleagues from Luhansk, they make use of 80-85% of the groundwater in drinking water supply. And not 85-95% of surface water, as in the entire Donetsk region, where the water-ecological situation is worse.
The withdrawal from surface water supply in the region has been around since the end of the Soviet era. And now, given the additional impact of flooded mines, Luhansk has managed to keep up this trend.
For example, even before the war part of the water intakes in the area of Rubizhne and Lysychansk fell into the areas of influence of local chemical enterprises. And even though the water intakes were so close to the hazardous industries, the state standard of Ukraine allowed the use of local water, because it was less dangerous than getting water from the Siverskyi Donets.
Speaking of drinking water, is artesian water the way out?
Switching to artesian waters would greatly streamline the situation. They are protected from surface pollution and are not subject to the influence of temperature, climate, and surface runoff. The E.U. Water Framework Directive also declares priority for their use.
Now, as never before, it is necessary to “detac” drinking water supply from ground sources, because, if the mines are flooded, they will only worsen their quality.
It is possible to create a safe water supply in the Donbas. 2,000,000 cubic meters of artesian water in Donetsk region and over 4,000,000 in the Luhansk have been explored already. Even if we take 50% of these reserves, they will be sufficient to provide the remaining population with safe drinking water in the short term.
In 2016, I spoke at the Ministry of Ecology with a proposal for a state groundwater intensive use program. Unfortunately, the idea was not even included in the agenda.
River Siverskyi Donets in the Luhansk region, October 26, 2017. Photo: Volodymyr Strumkovskyi / UNIAN
It's hard to give an accurate estimate of how things will turn out right now. Stopping what's happening with ecology in the Donbas now is equally tough.
Ukrainian scientists, including Yakovlev, do not know what is exactly happening with the mines beyond the demarcation line.
The forecasts, analysis and information available to the interviewee is based on disparate data. This is news from the occupied territories, as well as studies of agencies in the government-controlled territories of the Donbas. The scientist also receives some information from colleagues who remained on the territory of the “DPR” and “LPR” and are now cut off from Ukrainian scientific institutes because of war.
There is no comprehensive monitoring of ecology across the whole region on the part of the Ukrainian state. Just as there is no official program or accurate government data on what the fate of the coal industry will be after reintegration and what steps will be taken in regards to drinking water and the environment.
One thing is certain: the war on the environmental front has been lost, and the question of what price we will pay is determined by how much longer the Donbas remains a hostage of circumstances.
Does it still make sense to mine coal?
Nowadays, there is no economic rationality of coal production.
When 80,000,000 tonnes of coal were extracted per year from 200 mines, there were already talks of subsidies to individual enterprises. Because the selling cost of coal did not cover the cost of production.
An example of this is the town of Snizhne – a typical mining town. The main mine, which for every ton of coal produced, pumped out 25 cubic meters of water. If we recalculate the amount of coal produced and the amount of pumped water, we end up in the red.
The Germans and the Brits came up with a scheme that allowed "maintaining" levels with the complete closure of the mines. Besides, in Germany, a provision of €300,000,000 per year for “dry” mine conservation is stipulated by law.
People involved in the mining industry have been retrained. The Georg Agricola University of Coal Industry was redeveloped into the University of Post-Mining. On top of that, mines were turned into museums.
According to Mykhailo Volynets, head of the Donbas Miners' Trade Union, two-thirds of all mines in the occupied Donbas are flooded. What threats are there if this process intensifies?
The situation may become a stalemate, because the water they stop pumping will start flowing into our mines en masse. Both those still working and already closed. Besides, let’s not forget that the mines on their side are 150 meters higher than ours.
Without a doubt, we can speak about the channels leading to the Tsentralna Mine in Toretsk, for example. There is no data on others in the district of Avdiyivka, and Selidovo. However, this is one of the areas most prone to such flooding. Underpasses link it not only with the notorious Yunkom mine, but also with Oleksandra-West, which was poisoned with chemicals in 1989. There is also a mine of the closed Mykytivskyi mercury mine, which is close to the public utility provider "Water of Donbas" channel, and its flooding may carry risks for this largest water supply system in the region.
Miners are leaving after a shift at a mine in the Luhansk region, January 31, 2017. Photo: Andriy Krymskyi / UNIAN
What steps should be taken to allow the region to continue to exist environmentally?
Speeding up introduction of groundwater as the main drinking water would be a good start.
First, an assessment is needed and then protective measures. Generally, Ukraine needs a model, a system for monitoring the environmental situation in the Donbas region. If there is a closure, then it is necessary to determine the critical depths of mine waters that will be safe for what is above.
We should remember that the rise of groundwater levels in mines in the Donbas is the main agent of dangerous environmental changes.
It’s not the flooding that we need, but management of water levels as they transition to a new equilibrium state, because the water is constantly rising. It is also necessary to create an expert model for forecasting the levels and possible complications of land subsidence, gas release, and impact on the state of utility networks.
Given the current situation, is it possible to use the "dry" method?
Unfortunately, for the most part, this seems unlikely. Because of the lack of adequate environmental protection measures, the situation with the floods of mines has become more complicated, and now it is almost irreversible. It is no longer possible to create a longwall system of holding the levels at depth.
Mines that were flooded by the “wet” conservation method are largely unavailable for engineering purposes. This means that you need to build a new bore or drill a lot of clefts and pump water from them. Whereas if conduits are maintained, they work like perfect horizontal drainage. This is why mining conduits were preserved in Europe – due to their filtration performance. It is necessary to go for separate systems of protection of separate cities and settlements.
Public drainage system is impossible under the current conditions in the Donbas.
What can happen after a "point of no return"?
We are already at this point. And the longer the war goes on, the sooner we cross the line.
Some land will be over-flooded, like quicksand. Opportunities for agricultural activity will be minimized due to high levels of soil salinization. There’s no point mentioning surface and groundwater in principle, because their quality will get even worse. And this will prevent their use for drinking.
The territory will be "torn" into areas of partially preserved landscape due to contamination of surface and underground catchments, deformation of the surface and utility networks.
READ MORE: Donbas: the new exclusion zone
/By Stanislav Kondratiev
/Translated by Hromadske International