Friday, 13 June 2014

Seven dead and two missing following explosion at Ukrainian mine.

Seven miners are known to have died and two more are still missing following an accident at an underground coal mine at Kirovsk in Luhansk Province in eastern Ukraine. Full details of the incident are not yet available, but it is said to have been caused by a methane outburst at a depth of about 300 m slightly before 3.40 am local time on Thursday 12 June 2014. Operations at the mine have been suspended.

The approximate location of the Kirovsk Coal Mine. Google Maps.

Coal is formed when buried organic material, principally wood, in heated and pressurized, forcing off hydrogen and oxygen (i.e. water) and leaving more-or-less pure carbon. Methane is formed by the decay of organic material within the coal. There is typically little pore-space within coal, but the methane can be trapped in a liquid form under pressure. Some countries have started to extract this gas as a fuel in its own right. When this pressure is released suddenly, as by mining activity, then the methane turns back to a gas, expanding rapidly causing, an outburst or explosion. This is a bit like the pressure being released on a carbonated drink; the term 'explosion' does not necessarily imply fire in this context, although as methane is flammable this is quite likely.

The Ukrainian mining industry has a poor safety record after years of low investment. The political situation in Lunhansk and neighbouring Donetsk provinces (which together make up the Donbass mining region, where the bulk of Ukraine's mines are situated), is currently extremely unstable, with pro-Russian separatists seeking independence for the region. This has led to a series of armed encounters between separatists and Ukrainian authorities, and an incursion into the region by Russian troops. A referendum on independence was organized by the separatists in May 2014, but the (pro-independence) results of this have not been recognized by the Ukrainian government, the EU or the US. This is likely to lead to ongoing political instability in the region, and therefore improvements in the mining industry's safety standards are unlikely to come soon.

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