When Aleksander Maryinych enters a metal cage and descends into darkness with dozens of other miners for his six-hour shifts, the concussive thumps of an artillery war are replaced by the clatter of rail carts and the grind of machinery carving deep into the earth.
Plumes of dust and smoke from Russian bombardment are exchanged for clouds of fine coal dust, seeping into the crevices of the miners’ skin and staining their eyebrows a signature black.
“When I’m down in the mine, I forget about the war because I have to concentrate on other things,” said Maryinych, 33, a drill operator at a private coal mine run by the DTEK energy company in the Dobrapil district, along the war’s front lines in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. “Everything is black and white, and there are risks.”
Accidents are common in Ukraine’s aging coal mines. Methane gas, a byproduct of coal mining, is highly explosive. In 2007, a methane blast killed more than 100 miners, the deadliest mining accident in the country’s post-Soviet history. Last year, nine miners plunged to their deaths when a steel elevator cable broke at a colliery in a part of the Donbas controlled by pro-Russia separatists.
Now Russia’s heavy, indiscriminate bombing has added yet another threat to Ukraine’s coal mines, where personal fears and global anxieties meet.
The war has disrupted global energy markets and has driven up the cost of oil and coal to record levels. A brutally cold Russian winter, the economic rebound from the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — as well as resulting sanctions — came as the world was generating more electricity than ever from coal despite calls to combat climate change.
Global coal consumption is expected to reach a record of more than 8 billion metric tons in 2022 and is likely to remain there through at least 2024, according to the International Energy Agency. The price of coal hit an all-time high of more than $400 a ton in March. This month, Germany said it would restart coal-fired power plants in order to conserve natural gas after Russia cut gas deliveries to Europe.
Despite having the world’s sixth-largest coal reserve, 90% of it in the Donbas region, Ukraine risks power cuts from shortages. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently announced that Ukraine was ceasing exports of oil, coal and gas to meet needs this winter.
Miners have more immediate concerns.
Even the DTEK mine near the city of Dobropillia, which Vitaly said produced more than all of the state-run mines combined, shut down in April after a mass evacuation as Russia’s intensified attacks. Operations have since resumed, but at a slower pace.
“We never know what can happen at any moment,” said Vitaly, explaining that some workers have not returned since April and that many services — shops, hospitals, rail and fuel supplies — have been disrupted, increasing the challenges of running the mine. “We worry — we’re close to the front line — but we manage as best we can. We now plan from day to day rather than from month to month.”
After a recent night shift, Maryinych emerged into the morning sun, showered and headed home to his wife, Olena, 34, and his two daughters, all of whom had returned the previous week after a month spent farther west for safety.
The land near their home features the towering slag heaps dotted across the region’s fertile plains. “Donbas mountains,” they are called.
“If a missile hits the elevator shaft, it would be very difficult to get the miners out,” said Vitaly, 51, the manager of the DTEK mine, who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “And if Russia destroys the power station, we cannot operate.”
If power to the ventilation system is cut, methane could accumulate in the tunnels, he said. If water pumps are disconnected, mines can flood and collapse. Russian bombardment cut electricity at the mine, a state-run enterprise near the town of Selidove, in April, trapping miners for hours. This month, 77 miners were temporarily trapped inside a mine in a Russian-controlled part of the Donbas after Ukrainian shelling disrupted power.
Despite the risks, Ukraine’s miners have little choice but to keep working.
Ukraine relies on coal for its industrial iron and steel sectors. Coal-fueled thermal power plants generate about one-third of the country’s electricity. Even with deep reserves, a decadeslong decline in coal production, accelerated by corruption and neglect and more recently, by commitments to the Paris climate agreement, demand has long outstripped supply.
The Donbas region used to have 82 operational mines in Russia-occupied areas, according to Sergiy Pavlov, chair of a local miners union, who said that only five still worked. Since Russia’s invasion began Feb. 24, he said, at least six mines have fallen under Russian control and stopped operating.
In the heavily shelled mining town of Vuhledar, 2 miles from Russian positions, the few remaining residents have been without water, gas or electricity for months. The nearby mines could not operate even if employees were there to work them.
“Everybody here is either a miner or a farmer,” Maryinych said.
He is both. His family has two plots where they grow fruit and vegetables and raise fowl. With his daughter Veronika, 7, he picked cherries, dropping them into a white plastic bucket before they sat down to enjoy their reward.
“For people here, coal is warmth and light,” said Maryinych, who has worked at the same mine near Dobropillia since he was 18. “Coal is also a salary, reliable and regular, twice a month.
“If it doesn’t have coal, the city will die,” he added, “and so will we.”