Sinkholes in Donetsk and nearby towns, rivers laced with nitrogen and heavy metals, drinking water contamination, disease risks — all of this may happen in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region in the next five to 15 years.

Donbas is the world's most industrialized region and currently a warzone. Wide swaths of the region, formerly a center of mining and industry, are now occupied by Russia-led separatists. Over a million people have already been displaced by the war in Ukraine. If this ecological catastrophe comes to pass, at least 2.5 million more could be forced to flee both Ukrainian government-controlled and separatist-held territories.

And the ecological crisis bearing down on eastern Ukraine could have significant implications for Russia and the broader Azov and Black Sea region.

This special documentary by Hromadske presents scientists' scenarios of how ecological disaster could unfold in the Donbas. It also articulates ways this catastrophe can be prevented. Our goal is not to scare, but to warn the public about the potential consequences if we do not act now.
The research used in this documentary was carried out by Ukrainian and international organizations: Institute of Telecommunications and Global Information Space, Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences Ukrainian Civil Protection Research Institute of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, Ukrainian Scientific Park Civil Protection Technology Transfer Center, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), Switzerland. The Ukrainian Ministry of Ecology has already published the OSCE report which includes the data.

But we at Hromadske also did our own experiments and spoke with experts and politicians — including those from Germany and the United Kingdom, the two countries that successfully closed down their mines and renovated the area but are still working on reducing environmental damage caused by extraction.
In 2009, there were 226 legal mines and roughly 2500 illegal mining sites in eastern Ukraine. There are also 3240 other potentially dangerous sites: chemical plants, quarries, water pipes, and oil fields. But the biggest risk is uncontrolled flooding in the mines.

Virtually all water drainage systems in the separatist-occupied territories of the Donbas have stopped functioning: from Horlivka to Yenakieve, in the Pervomaisk region of Luhansk, and partly in Donetsk and Makiivka. Meanwhile, 36 mines have been flooded and can no longer be used. The Ukrainian Ministry of Ecology confirmed this figure.

The Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine, which maintains links with its colleagues on the other side of the front line, told us that only one third of the mines are still operational in the separatist-held Donbas. Geologists who remained in Donetsk confirmed to Hromadske that even more mining enterprises are set to close in 2018.
We went to the Donbas to see what the mining situation is like for ourselves.

The mining town of Toretsk (formerly Dzerzhynsk) is, in fact, a satellite town of separatist-held Horlivka. It is one of the most revealing examples: many local mines are connected by underground corridors with the mines controlled by the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic." In Toretsk there are working mines, mines that have long closed, and those that shut down during the war.
"Caution Mines!" reads the sign above the entrance to the Pivdenna (or South) Mine, located on the front line. Its director, Anatoly Kulinich, says that one of the mine's employees was killed during shelling. The mine is 150 years old and the coal reserves are depleted.
"Caution Mines!" reads the sign above the entrance to the Pivdenna (or South) Mine, located on the front line.
Its director, Anatoly Kulinich, says that one of the mine’s employees was killed during shelling. The mine is 150 years old and the coal reserves are depleted.
Next to Pivdenna is the Artem Mine. It has been scheduled to close since 2004. The mine is connected to the mines in occupied Horlivka by underwater passages and could be flooded.

"'We don't extract coal from nature; we steal it.' This is a miners' proverb," says Viktor Ghert, the director of Tsentralna (or "Central"), the largest working mine. This lively, cheerful man is proud that his company has not stopped operating since he first arrived there in 1970. It even continued working throughout the turbulent Perestroika years in the 1980s and the current conflict.

The flooding risk is similar in all the mines in the "gray zone" between government-controlled and separatist held territory, according to the Ukrainian State Service of Geology and Mineral Resources, which was evacuated from occupied Donetsk to Bakhmut. The geologists there confirm that this is not scaremongering: the risks are real. Sketches of the underground connections between the mines on both sides of the front line prove these are real risks.
The Zolote coal enterprise in Ukraine's Luhansk region is on government-controlled territory. At this mine, around 500 workers have to pump water every day because, from time to time, the neighboring mine in separatist-held Pervomaysk gets flooded. The workers have four shifts every day. Their work didn't even stop when the area came under serious shelling and the mine lost electricity. Read our report "Well to Hell: Welcome to Ukraine's Frontline Mines."
Photo: Evhen Spirin
Hromadske traveled to occupied Donetsk in December 2014 and visited the Trudovsky Mines. People there were living in the company's bomb shelters. And back then — three years ago — they had already stopped extracting coal and only pumped water. But the miners weren't receiving their salaries. The Trudovsky Mines are state property and they belong to Ukraine. Our report in English can be found here.

In 1979, during Soviet times, scientists conducted nuclear experiments at the Yunkom Mine, located near the town of Yenakiyeve, not far from the currently separatist-held Donetsk. The tests were meant to mix up the ground layers. A glass capsule containing radiation compounds was hidden 900 meters unground. It is still there.

Yunkom closed in the early 2000s and, since then, they have pumped water from the mine. The leaders of the self-proclaimed separatist republics in the area claim that everything is under control. The Ukrainian government is also aware of this dangerous site.

Forty years after the nuclear experiment, water and air tests showed that there is no danger. But the main task is to ensure that water does not reach the capsule.
The map includes the data from the blog «Coal Mines of Donbas».
The Donbas mines have only been flooded once — during the Second World War. Then, the Soviet Union needed five years to get rid of all the water. After the war, the amount of coal extracted increased significantly.

Pumping water from closed mines to avoid ground contamination and sinkhole risks is very expensive. Depending on the mine's depth, pumping itself amounts to around a third or even a half of the cost of the running the enterprise.

The easiest way to avoid ecological risks during armed conflict is to close down all the mines.

But Ukraine doesn't have an action plan of how to deal with this issue. And closing the mines is a delicate political and social issue for Ukraine.
These photographs were taken in 2009 in Nachterstedt, Germany. Three people died as a result of a landslide in the region, where mines turned into lakes.
The Wales, Sheffield and Birmingham regions of the United Kingdom and Germany's Ruhr region all provide prime examples of successfully shuttering mines. But they still face the consequences of all the damage they did to nature.

The United Kingdom, which started closing its mines in the 1980s, still pumps water from them. This year, Germany's last mine is planned to shut down, but it already has plans to pump water from the old mine for the next 25 years.

Every year, millions of cubic meters of water need to be extracted from below ground. Germany spends 220 million euros on this annually.
In Ukrainian cities, water passes through a water treatment system and before arriving in homes and businesses from centralized sources. The water utility company Voda Donbasa is responsible for this process in the Donbas. But when the water treatment plant comes under shelling, many people use the water from wells and pump rooms.

In Sontsivka, as in many other villages in the region, there generally is no centralized water supply. We traveled to this region to carry out our own water tests and compare them with data from an expedition by geologist Yevhen Yakovlev and four Ukrainian and international organizations. The expedition found that 88% of water samples taken in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions had pollution levels exceeding anything allowable under sanitary-chemical standards — and the worst conditions were mainly in wells.

The samples were taken from 35 sources in Ukrainian-controlled territories and 26 in occupied territories to check for man-made effects like increased salt content.
Many villages in the Donbas drink water drawn from wells. But now, with the war there, people use new wells and water fountains that are not monitored. Contaminated water could get in there.
We conducted parallel research, taking samples from unguarded ponds and wells. We worked with a chemical laboratory specialist from the Siversky Donets Basin Administration of Water Resources, located in the government-controlled town of Slovyansk, to test the water in the three wells near the city of Kurakhove, where analysis has already been carried out.

The chemists in Slavyansk also suggested the Kryvyi Torets River, near the city of Toretsk and Novohorodske village.

"It's terrible. I just don't understand how people can drink this water. I can only sympathize with them," says Nataliya Makarova, the head of the ion exchange and absorption laboratory at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. "Yes, you can use it in industry, but this is not even suitable for watering plants. All the samples you have brought show extremely high levels of salt and mineralization."

It is difficult to predict where the contaminated water from the mines will enter other bodies of water. This is why monitoring is needed.

The Siversky Donets River is the main source of drinking water in eastern Ukraine. Research shows that there is already a high concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen in the river. 90% of the Donetsk region and 30% of the Luhansk region depends on the water from the Donets. The river also flows to the Rostov region, where the water is used in agriculture. The salinization of the water source could lead to the mineralization of the black soil. The river also flows into the Don River, and, from there, into the Sea of Azov.
While preparing this film, Hromadske spoke with representatives of many institutions and state offices – including geologists, miners, hydro-engineers, and water specialists. Our aim was not to place blame on anybody. But we came to realize: there is a limit to what any one person or organization can do. Ukrainian institutions largely work in the same way and with the same resources as they did before the war, and each handles their own area.

For example, local geologists are responsible for groundwater, the Water Resources Agency is responsible for reservoirs, and the company Voda Donbasa ensures that pipes in the area contain purified water. But they cannot purify water in case the whole river is polluted. The miners are not able to pump water out of areas where fighting is taking place.

Workers from Ukraine's State Emergency Service based in the Donbas cannot act in case of a nearby environmental disaster if it's on the other side of the contact line.

The Ministry of Defense's ecological safety department directed Hromadske to the Ministry of Ecology on this issues. However the job likely requires the expertise of a number of other ministries including energy and coal mining, temporary occupied territories and finance ministries.
The Butkova mine — located on the outskirts of Donetsk, not far from the Ukrainian-controlled town of Avdiivka — has been almost completely destroyed by shelling. Miners are unable to work there due to near constant shelling. Additionally, some sources claim that there are Russia-backed militants stationed at the front-line mines in the uncontrolled territories.
On the other hand, Ukraine's Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, Ostap Semerak, insists that his department is aware of the threat and is working to coordinate more effectively with the regional administrations. While some of the regions do have environmental departments, funds are allocated at the local level. In Donetsk, the regional administration supposedly plans to conduct environmental monitoring, but this seems to be an independent initiative.

The biggest risk right now is that politicization and war will delay action on this ecological problem. It is easy to place the blame for the war, but it is difficult to believe that either Russia or the separatist leaders will resolve the problem.

And there are many things that must be done:
  • systematic monitoring that will not be limited to any region or side
  • a partial cancellation of the ban on inspecting sites in the conflict zone
  • the creation of a cooperation protocol in case of an emergency
  • agreeing on systematic water and soil analyses on separatist-controlled territory
Photo: Evhen Spirin
The mandate of the current OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine does not include ecological evaluation. However, satellite radar allows scientists to evaluate the sensitivity of the land and measure a shift of up to a millimeter a year.

Ukraine should also seek more advanced technology to pump water from the mines. But this will likely be an extremely unpopular political issue. After all, these are millions of dollars that will be poured into the ground of an already depressed region. Finally, as unpleasant as it sounds, Ukraine should create a plan for evacuating the population in case of sinkholes.

In the years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster some of the surrounding areas have recovered because nature extracted resources from the soil. But in the Donbas, that cannot happen. The land is full of holes left by the mines.

In spite of the war, the people we met in the Donbas have not left the region. Largely, this is because they have nowhere to go. But if we lose control over nature, it could drive them out.
A panoramic video showing the work on the Central Mine in Toretsk, Donetsk region.
Translated and adapted by Maria Romanenko, Matthew Kupfer, Eilish Hart, Sofia Fedeczko, Natalie Vikhrov

The project, which includes data and documents gathered by Hromadske is available is Ukrainian and Russian
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