The Donbas has historically been the industrial heartland of Ukraine, serving as a center for industry and coal mining. The war in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014 led to the destruction of many forms of critical infrastructure and prohibited the maintenance of hundreds of coal mines. Destruction of this infrastructure has not only disrupted life in the region, but also set the stage for potential ecological damage.
The Russian invasion that began on 24 February 2022, will only worsen the current situation as intensified conflict will continue to damage and prevent the maintenance of hundreds of coal mines throughout the Donbas. The repair and maintenance of these mines will be a primary area of concern for whichever entity holds postwar control over the territory.
Recent GEOINT analysis from 2020-2022 shows noteworthy surface water pollution near deteriorating mines in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, a phenomenon which will have repercussions in the postwar Donbas.
Since 2014, the Donbas has endured active armed hostilities between the Ukrainian government and the Russian-backed separatist states of the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), which have jeopardized mining operations in the region. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe estimates that 36 mines out of the 88 mines controlled by separatists have been reported outright destroyed or flooded due to the conflict. While the conflict in the Donbas from 2014-2022 was characterized by relatively low-intensity fighting, the Russian invasion which began on 24 February 2022 has drastically escalated the fighting in the region. After the Russian announcement of a renewed focus on military operations in the Donbas, continued maintenance will be difficult and it is very likely the conditions of these coal mines in the Donbas will continue to deteriorate.
The coal mining industry in the Donbas region of Ukraine dates back to the 18th century, and in the 20th century, the Donbas became a focal point for supplying the Soviet Union with coal and energy. While the importance of Donbas coal to the Ukrainian and Russian economies has decreased over the past few decades, the region is still home to immense high-quality coal reserves. However, since 1986, Russia has reduced its reliance on Donbas coal mines due to poor living standards in the region and the technology investments needed to maintain the mines. Many mines are now too deep (20% of mines are deeper than 1000-1400m) or are considered unstable or hazardous due to poor geological conditions. Despite the decrease in Russia's reliance on Donbas coal over time, pre-existing Donbas mines offer Russia an option to increase their coal extraction in the future. Should Russia establish long-term control or influence over the Donbas, these plentiful coal reserves could be controlled by Moscow's proxies or even integrated into the Russian Federation.
Over the course of the conflict in the Donbas from 2014-2022, the Russian-backed separatist states of the LPR and DPR controlled 88 out of 121 active mines in the Donbas according to the Ukrainian government. Of these 88 mines, 36 have been reported outright destroyed or flooded due to the conflict. Despite the lack of ongoing mining operations in these destroyed or inactive mines, continual upkeep is still required to prevent the mines from deteriorating and polluting local environments. It has become clear that separatist authorities have failed to properly manage these mines. In 2018, excess groundwater from separatist-controlled mines reportedly began flooding neighboring mines. These flooded mines have destabilizing effects on the overall Donbas region, including gas explosions, ground tremors, and even the toxification of drinking water.
General Environmental Consequences of Flooded Mines
The flooding of inactive coal mines in eastern Ukraine can create environmental consequences for the entire Donbas ecosystem. According to an on-the-ground report conducted by the Truth Hounds with the National Endowment for Democracy, the most reported environmental consequences of flooded mines on the surrounding infrastructure include:
The pollution of ground and surface water (in some cases radioactive contamination) from toxic chemical byproducts of coal mining that leaches into surrounding rivers, and in some cases, a region's main source of drinking water. Groundwater pollution takes two primary forms:
Toxic chemical pollution: the presence ofnumerous excess pollutants derived from the mining process, such as chlorides, sulfates, iron, manganese, and nickel. Visibly detectable by an orange-brown discoloration on imagery.
Eutrophication: the presence of excess nitrogen and phosphates also derived from the mining process. A common visible effect ofeutrophication is algal blooms, where algae rapidly grows due to the excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. Visibly detectable by an overly green discoloration on imagery.
Increase in groundwater levels by subsidence of soil, risking "man-made earthquakes" that result in tremors and cracks in the surface. Residential buildings are most vulnerable to facing costly damage. An estimated 12,000 hectares/29,000 acres are facing the risk of subsidence.
The deterioration of soil quality affects the surrounding agricultural zones.
Air pollution from liquid chlorine carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide, and other toxic substances.
Both the collapse of infrastructure that would flush water from mines and the flooding of mines pose threats to potable water and accessibility for the people of the region. Annual drainage of mines across eastern Ukraine has been halved since 2014. In eastern Ukraine, this means more than 800 million cubic meters of water (which in the past would have been considered wastewater and properly flushed out) is being absorbed into underground aquifers, causing salinization and polluting water sources with toxic chemicals.
The build-up of water in these abandoned mine cavities also pushes methane and radon gasses towards the surface. Effects of this can be as minor as land convexity and as major as triggering explosions in basements of buildings. As the conflict continues in eastern Ukraine, the possibility of shelling or other kinetic acts could trigger minor explosions as it interacts with the volatile radon and methane gasses.
Environmental degradation such as water pollution has negatively affected the people of the Donbas and will continue to so long as the current crisis prevents adequate maintenance of mines throughout the Donbas. Before the February 2022 invasion, around 1.65 million people in eastern Ukraine were in need of water-related assistance, be it by water stoppages, shortages, or lack of access to potable water. As more critical mining infrastructure is destroyed or neglected due to continued conflict, more citizens will lose access to critical resources such as potable water. While the fate of the Donbas is yet to be determined, whichever government controls the region at the end of the current conflict will have to act quickly to address these issues and avert environmental damage.
These case studies are examples of trends seen across deteriorating mines in the Donbas. The conflict from 2014-2022 and now the Russian invasion of 24 February 2022 will only exacerbate the negative conditions of mines across the Donbas.
Yunkom Mine - Surface Water Pollution and Potential for Radiological Contamination
Commercial and open satellite imagery analysis of the Yunkom mine demonstrates significant pollution of nearby surface water reservoirs. The mine has also been a site for radiological waste disposal, which compounds its environmental toll. Controlled by separatist forces since 2014, analysis has determined little has been done to prevent flooding and pollution.
"5-6" Mine - Flooded Mine which Correlates with Polluted Surface Water
Commercial and open satellite imagery analysis of the "5-6" mine demonstrates significant nitrate pollution of multiple surface water reservoirs. Although located over 40 kilometers from the conflict zone, the mine still fell into disrepair and has been polluting the local environment.
Zolote-Rodina - Preventative Maintenance
Commercial and open satellite imagery analysis of the Zolote and Rodina mines demonstrates controlled and managed surface water pollution, likely attributed to renewed maintenance of the mine in 2018. The mine is located within a kilometer of the 2014-2022 line of contact and may serve as an examplar for future management of flooded mines near and around the conflict area.
This study utilized commercial satellite imagery and GIS datasets to create and analyze a comprehensive dataset of coal mines within the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine.
Satellite imagery of mining areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were analyzed with Maxar commercial imagery and public layers in Google Earth Pro. Coal mines were identified by the presence of large coal tailings (large material piles), open-source information compiled from on-the-ground reporting and OpenStreetMap. The imagery analysis was supplemented with press reports, scientific papers, and government documentation.
Normalized Difference Chlorophyll Index (HDCI)
Our analysis was supplemented further by using the Normalized Difference Chlorophyll Index (NDCI) to identify polluted bodies of water. The NDCI is an index that aims to predict plant chlorophyll (the natural green compound that gives plants their color) content. By using color coding and imagery from Sentinel-2 satellites, the index is able to estimate eutrophication and other forms of pollution. Eutrophication is defined as the excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or other body of water, frequently due to runoff from the land, which causes a dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen. While only a computer-generated estimation, the index helped down-select which bodies of water to investigate further.
The data accompanying this article (downloadable as a CSV and KMZ file) lists the locations and attributes of over 300 mines. Mine names were derived from OpenStreetMap, and unnamed mines were named numerically by oblast. Due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, many official resources and datasets such as the Donbas Environmental Information System are unavailable. Therefore this dataset is not an official tally of all of the coal mines in Donbas, but rather a comprehensive assessment of most of the mines in the region discovered by our team.
The Environmental Scorecard was created to illustrate the potential risk factors associated with each of the 300 + mines analyzed by our team. Each mine was examined for three key factors that could impact the pollution potential, namely proximity to population centers, conflict areas, and significant surface water sources. Proximity to population was determined by each mine's relative distance to population centers. A mine was considered proximal to conflict if it was located within 10 kilometers of the 2014-2022 line of contact or if located to the west of the line of contact, as current Russian offensives are advancing westward. Proximity to water was determined by using a 1500-meter proximity to waterways and surface water reservoirs. 1500 meters was considered a significant distance as previous studies in the region have documented surface water pollution detectable by up to 1500 meters from polluted mines in the Donbas.
1: Yunkom Mine
Satellite imagery analysis of the Yunkom mine demonstrates significant chemical pollution of nearby surface water reservoirs. The mine has also been a site for radiological waste disposal, which compounds its environmental toll. Controlled by separatist forces since 2014, satellite imagery analysis has determined little has been done to prevent flooding and pollution.
Located in the separatist-controlled Donbas, the Yunkom mine was the site of a controlled atomic explosion in 1979. In order to limit the explosion's long-term impact, its radioactive by-products were sealed within a chamber deep in the mine. This solution was not effective for long. As early as 1991, inspectors discovered cracks in the Yunkom radioactive chamber. These fissures increase the likelihood of radionuclide migration, which poses a human and ecological threat to the region. The escalation of conflict and shelling in the region have further burdened efforts to retain any form of administrative control over the mine.
The Yunkom mine is located within the DPR, one of the Russian-backed separatist states in the Donbas. Poor stewardship of the mine by local authorities compounds the threat of ecological devastation. In April 2019, DPR officials described the $9.5 million upkeep cost for mine maintenance as "prohibitively expensive". Inactivity at the mine is visually evident in Figure 1A, where trees and plants grow plentifully on the mine's tailing. This lack of management has impacts beyond the mine's exterior. This tailing visible above the surface is only a fraction of the size of the mine beneath the surface, which extends throughout much of the area underground. Despite the Yunkom mine's pre-existing permanent drainage systems, it still requires pumping operations to prevent flooding. As a result of the DPR's decision to no longer pump water from the mine, the mine poses a risk of water supply contamination, increased ground subsidence, and even earthquakes. Compounding these pre-existing factors, the mine was even deliberately flooded in 2018. The management of Yunkom is similar to many mines near the conflict area under the control of Russian proxies, as many of the mines are either abandoned by flooding or deliberately flooded.
The Yunkom mine is close in proximity to the Red October and Poltavskaya coal mines. As Yunkom and connecting mines, particularly the Red October that is hydrologically connected to Yunkom, continue to deteriorate, radioactive contamination could continue to spread in the groundwater. On 1 March 2020, a concentration of 20-34* 10^(−3) Bq/kg of radionuclides was confirmed by the International Human Rights Community in aquifers up to five kilometers from the neighboring Yunkom Mine. This level is classified as low-level radioactive contamination by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but can present numerous health consequences after prolonged consumption from drinking water.
The presence of radionuclides prompts concerns regarding human wellbeing. Radionuclides are radioactive forms of elements that are the byproduct of nuclear reactions. These radioactive elements are slowly decaying, this decay can take anywhere from mere seconds to millions of years. While the radionuclides cannot be observed on imagery, Figure 1B depicts the mine's proximity to Yunkomunarivs'k (large urban center) and local water sources. Based on the several locations reporting the presence of radionuclides, citizens in Yunokunarivsk and others in the region may have been exposed through local water supplies. If left unchanged, these radionuclides could penetrate into the local Bulavynka and Kyrnka rivers, which connect to the Mius river and flow into the Black Sea. Groundwater pollution could even penetrate into the Siversky-Donetsk river, which supplies nearly 85% of water provided in the greater region, according to on-the-ground investigations by Truth Hounds and the National Endowment for Democracy. Wider contamination would not only affect the eastern Ukrainian population, but also the entirety of the DPR, LPR, and even sizeable Russian cities near the border, such as Rostov.
Numerous water sources near the Yunkom mine exhibit higher levels of pollution than normal. In Figure 1C, there are at least two bodies of water that are pigmented orange which indicates an increased level of pollution. This orange discoloration indicates the presence of numerous excess pollutants found in these mines such as chlorides, sulfates, iron, manganese, and nickel. The existence of polluted sources of water near the Yunkom Mine illustrates the consequences of poorly maintained mines. These pollutants could possibly compound the effects of the leaking radioactive byproducts.
We assess that it is probable that both nuclear and nonnuclear contamination is spreading from the Yunkom mine. The bodies of discolored water in Figure 1C demonstrate the visible extent of nonnuclear contaminants as of September 2020, and reporting indicates that the pollution has worsened. Although radionuclides five kilometers from Yunkom were detected in 2020 (Figure 1B), no further effort has been made by the separatist authorities to maintain the mine, meaning it could be likely that radionuclides are spreading throughout the groundwater based on Truth Hound and National Endowment for Democracy reporting. Although the full extent of pollution from the mine cannot be ascertained by our analysis, further pollution and contamination of the direct area and into the Siversky-Donetsk river is a possibility. It is clear that without the necessary resources, this mine could continue to pose a unique and critical threat across the Donbas.
2: "5-6" Mine in Myrnograd (formerly known as Dimitrov)
Satellite imagery analysis of the "5-6" mine demonstrates significant nitrate pollution of multiple surface water reservoirs. Although located over 40 kilometers from the conflict zone, the mine still fell into disrepair and has been polluting the local environment.
The 5-6 mine is under the authority of the state-owned enterprise, Mirnogradugol, in the city of Myrnograd of the Donetsk Oblast. The mine is located within Ukrainian government-controlled territory, 40 kilometers from the 2014-2022 line of contact. Although significantly behind the frontline, the threat of heavy military conflict has greatly reduced the activity of the mine (the intense 2014-2015 battle for the Donetsk Airport was an hour away from Myrnograd). According to the official website of the 5-6 Mine, the mine has been operating irregularly due to insufficient funding. Prior to the conflict, the mine was known in the region for its high production with an annual capacity producing 900 thousand tons. However, production has greatly declined since the onset of hostilities in 2014 with the most recent annual production capacity reaching only 135 thousand tons.
The mining process has remained irregular during the conflict in the Donbas and the site has not been well-maintained. The area around the 5-6 mine contains numerous bodies of water, labeled points A-G in Figures 2A and 2B. After performing the NDCI analysis illustrated in figure 2B, points D, E, F and G appear to be polluted indicated by the orange and red pixels. Follow-up visual analysis shows a greener hue in these bodies of water, indicating eutrophication due to higher nitrate concentration - the release of which is a byproduct of excavating coal mines.
These points span primarily over the Kazenyi Torets river, where a 2017 report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) corroborated this analysis by noting increased concentrations of nitrates and copper. A high concentration of oil-based products was also found within the Kazenyi river, which can further be verified by the findings in this OSCE report and the pollution index (in points D, E, F, and G). It is unclear why the surface waters present in bodies A, B, and C are unpolluted.
The 5-6 mine shaft leads to the Sinna Beam, a ravine that further connects to the Kazenny Torets River. The cities of Druzhovka (population of 55,088), Kramatorsk (population of 150,084), and Slavyansk (population of 106,972) are located on the river basin of the Kazenyi Torets River. The Kazenyi Torets connects to the Siversky-Donetsk river, the primary river throughout the Donbas. If pollution continues to build from the 5-6 mine and flow into the Siversky-Donetsk, the Donbas could be at risk for contamination.
3: Zolote and Rodina Linked Mines
Many mines, such as the Zolote and Rodina mines, in the region are linked underground and therefore the environmental consequences from one damaged mine can affect other nearby mines. Satellite imagery analysis of the Zolote and Rodina mines demonstrates managed surface water pollution, likely attributed to renewed maintenance of the mine in 2018. The mine is located within a kilometer of the 2014-2022 line of contact and may serve as an exemplar for future successful management of flooded mines near and around the conflict area.
The mines located in Zolote in the Luhansk oblast are interconnected to support one another: the Rodina, Pervomaiska, and Holubivska mines operate to restrict the flow of mine water to the operational mines of Hirska, Karbonit, and Zolote. The underground links between these mines mean that any amount of untreated water can spread rapidly, spreading pollution throughout all of the linked mines and widening the area affected by the pollutants.
Conflict between the Ukrainian government and the Russia-backed separatist in 2014 saw many skirmishes near the location of the Zolote and Rodina mines before a temporary stalemate. See Figure 3A shows a trench position near the mine. The line of contact split the connected mines of Zolote and Rodina, making it more difficult for the Ukrainian government to commit to mine upkeep and maintenance. In May 2018, floodwater from Rodina and Holubivska broke through to the Zolote mine creating an overflow emergency that resulted in untreated water leaking into nearby bodies of water, specifically within the Siversky-Donetsk river basin. The Ukrainian government responded by investing in a new pump installation to safely pump floodwater from these mines.
According to both visual and NDCI analysis using the Pollution Index, the new pipe installations seem to be working as there is minimal pollution in the bodies of water surrounding the Zolote and Rodina mines. Surface water within 1,500 meters of the mine appears blue-green in color indicating a lack of chemical pollution (orange-brown color) or eutrophication (green-brown color). The only visible cause for concern is a small orange-colored pond found next to the Zolote mine in Figure 3B. The orange-brown hue indicates pollution from the same toxic pollutants found in coal mining observed around the Yunkom mine.
Since the Russian invasion that began in February 2022, the area around Zolote has been the focus of a renewed Russian offensive to take military control over the entire Donbas. As of 14 May 2022, the Russian military is reported to control the town of Zolote. As these mines are in an active war zone, local bombing and shelling will prohibit the safe maintenance of these mines.
Continual investment in machinery to pump water and control flood levels at the Zolote and Rodina mines appeared to be working from 2017 to 2020, effectively maintaining safer water quality for nearby towns and surrounding farmland. While promising, the current conflict has likely halted maintenance of the project and is a cause for concern.
The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has the potential to exacerbate the deterioration of the hundreds of coal mines throughout eastern Ukraine. Active and expanded hostilities will make it difficult for maintenance projects to continue. Satellite imagery analysis has provided useful insights into the possible extent of pollution and moderately managed cases from various mines across the Donbas.
The presence of toxic pollutants in surface water has been detected throughout the Donbas as illustrated by the Yunkom and 5-6 mine case studies. While not as environmentally dangerous as toxic chemical pollution, eutrophication indicating nitrate pollution has also been observed around many mines as indicated by the analysis of the 5-6 mine. Radionuclide pollution from the Yunkom mine, while currently a low-level risk, could scale to greater environmental damage if left unaddressed. The conflict of 2014-2022 made maintenance difficult, not impossible. While the separatist states have done little to maintain critical mines in the region like Yunkom, efforts by the Ukrainian government to maintain mines and prevent flooding, even close to the conflict zone in Zolote, were met with moderate success.
The situation in the Donbas will only continue to deteriorate as long as the conflict in the region continues. The potential contamination of the Siversky-Donetsk river basin by both toxic pollutants and even possibly radionuclides could set the entire Donbas region on a course for ecological distress. While the outcome of the current conflict is uncertain, whatever power that holds control over the Donbas will have to act quickly to address the deterioration of these mines.
Feb. 24, 2022
Russia invades Ukraine
On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of a "Special Military Operation," which was followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As of May 2022, hostilities are still ongoing.
Wall Street Journal
Russia formally recognizes the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the recognition of Moscow-backed separatists’ claims to the whole of Ukraine’s Donbass region, a move that was shortly followed by open hostilities.
Radionuclides detected in aquifers only 5 kilometers from Yunkom mine
A concentration of 20-34*103 Bq/kg of radionuclides were confirmed in aquifers 5km from the neighboring Yunkom Mine.
These radionuclides had already entered the surrounding villages drinking water supply.
Donbas Invisible Front Report
Volodymyr Zelenskyy is elected president in a landslide rebuke of Poroshenko and the status quo, which includes a stagnating economy and the conflict with Russia. During his campaign, Zelenskyy vowed to make peace with Russia and end the war in the Donbas.
Flooding detected between linked "Zolote" and "Rodina" Mines
In May 2018, floodwater from Rodina and Holubivska broke through to the Zolote mine, resulting in an overflow emergency and investment in new pump installation by the Ukrainian government. Despite these counter emergency measures, the Zolote mine continues to struggle with the incoming water, resulting in untreated water being released into nearby bodies of water, specifically within the Siverskyi-Donets basin, which feeds into the Siverskyi-Donets river.
Donbas Invisible Front Report
The Minsk II Agreement revised and updated many of the provisions of Minsk I.
The new agreement included a ceasefire, limit on heavy arms, and provisions for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The provisions were never fully implemented by either side and are no longer in effect following the Russian invasion in February, 2022.
Ukrainian President Poroshenko signs a ceasefire agreement with President Putin in Belarus.
The agreement was violated multiple times by the Russian government and the agreement ultimately failed to stop the fighting.
Luhansk and Donetsk "People's Republics" Declare Independence from Ukraine
Russian-backed rebels, directly assisted by the Russian military, take over the governments in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts and declare independence from Ukraine. After the initial moves of the conflict, the fighting became static.
New York Times
Map of all of the mines found and assessed by our team in the Donbas. Mines are denoted by green symbols, case studies are denoted by yellow symbols. Lines of contact from the 2014-2022 conflict demonstrate the de facto borders between the Ukrainian government and the Russian-backed separatist republics. As of 13 May 2022, much of the Luhansk oblast is under control of Russian forces. Primary advances by Russian forces between 24 February and 13 May are denoted on the map.
The outcome of Russia's February 2022 invasion leaves the political fate of the Donbas unclear. Disrupted maintenance and further damage from conflict will exacerbate the degradation of the mines throughout the Donbas. The repair and maintenance of these mines will be a primary area of concern for whichever entity holds postwar control over the territory.
Things To Watch
Possible destruction or deliberate flooding of mines in conflict zone.
Continued unaddressed deterioration of and continued pollution by key mines, like Yunkom.
The reconstruction of the Donbas after the current conflict.