Home / Articles / Coal Mines, Land Mines and Nuclear Bombs: The Environmental Cost of the War in Eastern Ukraine
This article is an excerpt from Robert Hamilton’s forthcoming Black Sea Strategy Paper: “Five Years of War in the Donbas.”
The war in eastern Ukraine has raged for five years, killed over 13,000 people, and displaced millions. It has affected Ukraine’s political system, economy, society, and security situation. It has caused a rupture in relations between Russia and the West unprecedented since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, the war has also led to significant environmental consequences, which are largely unknown outside of Ukraine, but may prove to be its longest-lasting and most difficult legacy.
Before the war, the Donbas—the region of eastern Ukraine where it began—was one of the oldest and most fully integrated industrial regions in Europe. Its mining industry dates to the early 18th century and its heavy industry dates back to the 19th century, but was significantly expanded in the Soviet period. There are currently 176 potentially hazardous facilities in the Donbas, including coal mines, hydro-engineering facilities, pipelines, and oil fields. Of these, 99 are currently located in separatist-controlled territory.
Abandoned mines pose the largest and most urgent environmental hazard. Once a mine is abandoned and ground water is no longer pumped out, it fills the abandoned mine cavities, causing multiple environmental problems, including air, water, and soil pollution and ground subsidence. Mine flooding has increased the levels of methane and radon in the air around the mines, and can also push methane gas into the cellars of nearby buildings, creating an explosion hazard. There are at least 35 mines in the Donbas that are already flooded and are beyond repair. Another 70 are in the process of shutting down and will inevitably flood. Reasons for the closure of mines include economic insolvency, and damage or destruction from military operations. Annual runoff of contaminated water from the already-flooded mines totals some 760 million cubic meters, and deposits almost 2.5 million tons of salts and other contaminants—possibly including mercury, lead, and arsenic—into the Severniy Donets River and the Sea of Azov. Environmental specialists are especially “concerned about the flooding of the Oleksandr-Zakhid, whose underground areas were contaminated by waste from the Horlivka chemical plant in the 1980s.”
Perhaps most worrying is the state of the YunKom Mine, where in 1979 Soviet scientists set off an underground nuclear explosion in the hope of clearing gases from deep in the mine. YunKom at the time was the oldest mine in the Central Donbas, and was 915 meters deep. Plans called for digging further and mining at a depth of 1,250 meters. The problem was that below 600 meters in depth, toxic gas began escaping from seams in the bedrock. Scientists from the Skochinsky Institute of Mining near Moscow came up with a plan: they would place a nuclear bomb inside a chamber at the deepest part of the mine and explode it. The hope was that the force of the explosion would create “tears” in the bedrock seams, forcing the seeping gas out and to the top of the mine.
Although the explosion did decrease the level of gas, it also cracked the roof of the mine, making it unstable in that area and forcing the abandonment of plans to dig down to 1,250 meters. Fortunately, the Soviet scientists decided not to try this method in other mines. Until April 2019, pumps kept the area of the mine where the nuclear blast occurred dry. But in April, the de facto government of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” announced that the $9.5 million required for upkeep and repair of the pumps was prohibitive and that in any case “comprehensive scientific studies” had concluded that the flooding of the mine posed no environmental risk.
Ukrainian and Western policymakers and many environmental experts disagree. Warning of a “second Chernobyl,” Ukraine’s ecology minister told members of the European Parliament, “What the militants are playing at is nothing other than terrorism and political blackmail.” U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert wrote on Twitter, “Plans by Russian proxies to flood the abandoned YunKom coal mine . . . could threaten drinking water of thousands of Ukrainians in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine.” A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called YunKom “a singular threat” and warned that it “could release up to 500 cubic meters of radiation-contaminated mine waters into the ground water table.” If these assessments are correct and runoff from this mine adds nuclear contamination to the salts and other contaminants already being deposited into the water table, the water supply of the region could become so contaminated as to be permanently undrinkable within two decades.
In addition to contaminating the water supply, the abandoned, flooded mines increase the risk of medium-intensity earthquakes due to hydrogeomechanical shocks. Soil “slumping” or ground subsidence is another serious problem with no readily available solution. Also caused by the flooding of abandoned mines, ground subsidence averages 25cm in Donetsk City on average, and is up to 92cm in some parts of the city. Ground subsidence damages buildings, other structures, and utility connections. Directly above the abandoned mine tunnels, the problem is even more severe: flooding has destabilized some 9 billion cubic meters of mine tunnels throughout the Donbas, causing some 8,000 square kilometers of land above them to subside by an average of 1.75 meters.
Aside from abandoned mines, other hazardous, but unmonitored, facilities in the Donbas include the Donetsk State Chemical Plant, where radioactive waste has been dumped since 1963, and the Horlivka State Chemical Plant with its stock of mononitrochlorobenzene, a hazardous compound used in the manufacture of drugs, pesticides, oil additives, and other chemicals. These and other facilities are causing chemical pollution of the soil and bed silt of the regional river network, which environmental experts describe as irreversible. Finally, they are contributing to increased contamination of the air with methane, radon, and chemical compounds.
Military operations associated with the war have destroyed industrial enterprises and contributed to the uncontrolled dumping of hazardous waste. The war has destroyed 530,000 hectares of land, including 18 wildlife preserves with a total area of 80,000 hectares. Fires caused by military operations have destroyed 150,000 hectares of forest in the conflict zone.
Mines of another sort—specifically, land mines—present another long-term environmental challenge. The conflict zone is the largest and most densely mined area in the world; the cost of demining it is estimated at $1 billion. Reliable estimates of the total number of mines in the conflict zone are unavailable, but as of July 2018, demining efforts in only 3.7% of the potentially mined areas had found and neutralized some 340,000 mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance. Casualties to mines have totaled nearly 2,000 since the start of the conflict. In 2018, 43% of civilian casualties were due to mines and unexploded ordnance, and mine incidents were the leading cause of child casualties.
In total, the cost of the environmental clean-up could rival the $61.6 billion it took to remediate the effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico. Given that this sum is over $20 billion larger than Ukraine’s entire 2019 state budget, it is clear that the country cannot bear this cost alone.
There are signs that the war in the Donbas has reached an inflection point; a solution might be within reach. The exhaustion and frustration of people in the separatist-controlled regions, Russia’s changing policy on the war—at least in part a result of rising frustration among the Russian public—and the election of a new Ukrainian government without regional ties or ties to networks of oligarchs all contribute to the possibility of a settlement. But even if Ukraine, the separatist regimes, the West, and Russia can agree to stop the fighting and craft a durable political settlement to the war, its environmental legacies will persist for decades and could cause untold human and environmental damage.
 Razumkov Centre, National Security and Defence, No. 1-2 (177-178), 2019, p. 62.
 Hanna Sokolova, “In Ukraine’s Donbas, mines are facing flooding — and environmental disaster,” Open Democracy, March 12, 2019, internet resource at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/ukraine-donbas-mines-flooding-and-environmental-disaster/.
 Kristina Hook and Richard “Drew” Marcantonio, “War-related environmental disaster in Ukraine.”
 Razumkov Centre, National Security and Defence, p. 62.
 Hanna Sokolova, “In Ukraine’s Donbas, mines are facing flooding — and environmental disaster.”
 Razumkov Centre, National Security and Defence, p. 62.
 Serhiy Harmash, “Truth about the nuclear explosion at the YunKom mine. Witnesses’ testimonies,” Ostrov, August 10, 2018, internet resource at: https://www.ostro.info/articles/249/, accessed 24 September 2019.
 Halya Coynash, “Russia’s Donbas proxies flood YunKom Mine despite risk of radioactive catastrophe,” Kharkiv Human rights Protection Group, April 18, 2019, internet resource at: http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1524000997, accessed September 24, 2019.