TORETSK, Ukraine — A rusty winch slowly raises the elevator nearly 4,000 feet from the depths of the Tsentralna coal mine in Toretsk, a city of 67,000 people in the Donbas, an industrial region in eastern Ukraine.
As the giant cage reaches the top of the shaft, dozens of lights appear from the darkness, shining from helmets and flashlights as the miners, covered in black dust, step off and head to the showers, their workday finally over. On their way, they nod to their colleagues starting the day shift, who are waiting to make the descent.
During the Soviet era, the Donbas — short for Donetsk Basin — was a crucially important hub for heavy industry. Tens of thousands of people worked in the more than 200 coal mines that operated across the region.
The mines, once the beating heart of the region, where giant mountains of metal waste known as slag still dot the landscape, now represent a looming environmental catastrophe.
Across the Donbas, neglected and abandoned mines are filling with toxic groundwater, environmentalists warn. The water, filled with heavy metals and other pollutants, threatens to contaminate the drinking water from rivers and wells in the area, as well as the surrounding soil, making the land unfit for farming. Meanwhile, dangerous methane gas from the mines is being pushed to the surface, threatening to cause earthquakes and explosions.
Vasyl Chynchyk, the head of Toretsk’s Civil-Military Administration, told NBC News that out of the seven mines that once surrounded the city, only two, the Tsentralna and the Toretska mines, are still operational — the last vestiges of the area’s once-thriving industry.
To prevent disaster, local authorities have had to continually pump water out of the mines.
“If we drown, Tsentralna will drown after us,” said Yuriy Vlasov, an engineer at the decommissioned Nova mine, which now serves as a pumping station. After that, toxic water will flow into the Kryvyi Torets River and the Siverskyi Donets River, “where the whole Donbas drinks,” he said.
“Our only option is to keep pumping the water out.”
A constant battle
The situation is compounded by the Donbas’ history of conflict and economic calamity.
In recent decades, many of the mines in the Donbas have shut down, sinking the region into economic depression. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 brought even more devastation. More than 14,000 people have died in the ensuing conflict, according to the United Nations. In April, a Russian troop buildup near the Ukrainian border raised tensions once again.
“Businesses do not rush to invest money in a region affected by war,” Chynchyk said.
The Ukrainian government has lost control of dozens of coal mines in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Eighty-eight out of 121 mines currently in existence in the Donbas are now controlled by Russian-backed separatists, according to Ukraine’s Energy Ministry.
Deputy Prime Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, who is also the minister for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, and Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of Ukraine and the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk, told the United Nations in February that separatist groups are closing a number of those mines without the necessary preparations to make them safe. The Trilateral Contact Group is working to facilitate a resolution to the conflict in the region.
“You can’t just close a mine and forget about it, because the risks are too high,” said Yevhen Yakovlev, a hydrogeologist who works at the natural resources department of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. “Mine waters will rise, pollute the drinking water and destroy the soil.”
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Serhiy Pylypets, a miner at the Tsentralna mine, said that battling water is a constant part of the job. The deeper that miners dig, the more water comes in through open shafts and from underground rivers and other water sources.
Because of this, the process of closing a mine typically requires years of preparation. And even after mining operations cease, water from the decommissioned mine must still be continually pumped out.
In Donetsk, the press service for the area’s separatist-led coal and energy ministry said that it had closed 20 mines since 2015, 18 of which it said had been destroyed during attacks by the Ukrainian army.
“There is no problem with the flooded mines. We have been working to pump water out of the mines and construct new pumping stations,” the press service said.
Nazar Voloshyn, head of the Joint Forces Operation of the Ukrainian Army, said that the Ukrainian army has never attacked civil infrastructure in the Donbas.
Ukrainian experts dispute the assertion that the mines in separatist-controlled regions are being handled appropriately. They say separatists have stopped pumping water out of at least a dozen mines and have not allowed them access to the sites to monitor the situation.
“According to our measurements of the water levels in the region, the pumping stations there [in occupied parts of the Donbas] are out of order,” said Viktor Yermakov, an environmental scientist and a member of the Trilateral Contact Group.
“The governing body that rules over the territories must keep the pumping operations under control.”
Although experts predict that the worst environmental effects may not occur for another five to 10 years, the first signs of a possible catastrophe have already been spotted in the Donbas.
In 2018, water from two flooded mines in the occupied part of Luhansk province broke into the nearby Zolote mine, flooding it as well, according to the Ukrainian Ministry for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories. Since then, coal extraction there has been halted.
The following year, residents of Makiivka, a coal-mining city in the occupied part of Donetsk province, complained about a series of tremors shaking the area. Mykhailo Volynets, the head of Ukraine’s Independent Trade Union of Miners, told Ukrainian media at the time that separatists had failed to properly close the mines in the area, which made the ground above the mining tunnels unstable.
And in 2020, a series of gas explosions occurred in the basements of residential buildings in the Luhansk region. The explosions were caused by mine waters pushing methane gas to the surface, according to Pavlo Lysyansky, the government’s human rights watchdog overseeing the occupied territories.
Yermakov, the scientist, said one mine in the occupied area of Donetsk province is of particular concern: the Yunkom mine, which he named one of the most dangerous in the region.
In 1979, Soviet authorities conducted a controlled nuclear detonation inside the mine, leaving a potentially radioactive capsule some 3,000 feet underground.
The mine was closed in 2002, but pumping stations continued to keep the mine free of water.
A 2017 report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that water drainage operations at Yunkom and more than two dozen other mines in the Donetsk region had been disrupted during the conflict in eastern Ukraine. And in 2018, the separatist-led People’s Council of Donetsk ruled that the Yunkom mine would be flooded, due to a lack of financing needed to continue pumping the waters out.
Yermakov said this decision put the whole region in danger of radioactive contamination.
The press service for the area’s separatist-led coal and energy ministry told NBC News that a new underground pumping station at Yunkom is under construction.
But former President Kravchuk told the U.N. in February that the damage from Yunkom may already be done.
“The radiation may have already infiltrated the drinking waters of the region,” he said. “The Donbas is on the verge of environmental disaster, caused not only by war, but also by environmental pollution.”
A delicate balance
In Toretsk, the miners at the Tsentralna mine fill plastic bottles with filtered water — not only to drink during their shift, but also to take home. Local residents buy bottled water from the stores. Only the bravest dare to drink water from the tap, people joke.
For most residents, however, the potential for environmental catastrophe is not the most pressing concern.
Occupied by Russian-backed separatists in 2014, then retaken by the Ukrainian army, the city bears the scars of the long-simmering conflict. The local council building was destroyed in the fighting, and many other buildings were damaged. The reality of war is ever present — Ukrainian soldiers have set up a base on the site of one of the closed mines on the outskirts of the city.
The Ukrainian government has big plans for the region. By 2030, it plans to close most of the remaining coal mines as part of a transition to green energy.
Miners worry about what that will mean for their jobs and families, however. “This city will die without the mine,” said Dmytro Bondar, a miner who works at the Tsentralna mine.
Environmentalists also worry that the government won’t invest in infrastructure that can better control water levels within the mines and ensure that groundwater and rivers remain uncontaminated.
“In other countries, like Germany or England, the government constructed special hydraulic systems aimed to keep the mine waters at 250-350 meters (820-1,150 feet) forever,” Yakovlev said.
Experts in the region remain on high alert. According to Mykola Kiva, technical director of the Toretskvugillya state coal managing company, if the pumps at the Nova mine stop operating, water could begin to flood the Tsentralna mine in a matter of hours. It’s a delicate balance, one that could easily be upset in this volatile region.
“For now, the Nova mine is coping with the waters and protecting the nearby Tsentralna mine from possible flooding,” said Yuriy Yevsikov, a former coal miner who now serves as deputy head of the Toretsk Civil-Military Administration.
“But this is nature, it can’t be predicted.”