Ukrainian miners' helmets
Maria Sher

DONETSK â€" Komsomolets Donbas is one of the largest coal mines in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. But for more than a year now, it's been out of operation due to serious damage suffered by the war. There are holes from falling explosives. The electricity has been interrupted. And the entrance is practically collapsed. Only a couple of the workers are still left, and they haven’t been paid for several months.

At the Zacyadko mine, another major regional coal mine, work hasn’t stopped, but production has dropped below 30% of its previous level. The facility has been fired on multiple times, and in March there was a methane explosion that killed 17 miners.

Many other miners have lost their jobs, though that doesn't mean they've stopped working. Most of turned to the black market, taking jobs in illegal coal mines.

Vacili P., 48, a miner who had worked his whole life at Komsomolets was initially reluctant at first to talk to a reporter, but wanted to share his security worries. “It’s scary, of course,” he said. “I’m from a mining family. I learned about safety equipment as a child. In the illegal mines there is no security. We are walking on the edge. But I have to feed my family."

Before the fighting broke out, Luhansk and Donetsk regions provided nearly 70% of Ukraine’s coal production, and coal represented 21.8% of the country’s GDP. Yet mining coal in the region is also difficult, since most mines are extremely deep. As a result, the Ukrainian government has historically subsidized the industry. In 2013, the government spent $2 billion, or 1% of GDP, on mining subsidies.

According to the regional statistic service, the amount of coal mined from the Donetsk region has fallen so far this year by a factor of 3.1 compared to the same time period in 2014. Yet the amount of illegal coal is growing: Every day the region is exporting dozens of tons of coal.

Only available option

The illegal mines in Donetsk have always been a headache for Kiev: The coal there is stolen, and people die. There is no electricity or ventilation in the mines, and the miners who risk their lives to work there are paid pennies.

Before the civil war, miners in Donbas were paid well â€" around twice as much as the national average in Ukraine. It wasn’t easy to land a job at an official mine without good qualifications. But the “black” mines always took anyone who was capable of holding a shovel. As a result, it's a totally different business. Now you can buy a ton of coal for 480 hryvnia (about $23). Official coal companies sell their coal at more than three times that price.

A coal mine in Luhansk â€" Photo: Ukrainian Emergencies Ministry/Xinhua/ZUMA

Legal mines have often protested against the black market coal, but many suspect that the complaints are not entirely genuine. “Since it is so expensive to mine coal in Donbas, Kiev gave out subsidies and had tax benefits and special economic zones in Donbas,” explains Sergei Shapoval, a journalist who has done several investigations in Donbas. “Mine directors would buy coal from illegal mines and then pass it off as legal coal to increase their profits.”

Now, in many parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, illegal mines are the only option for coal miners. At the end of last year, the Donetsk and Luhansk Autonomous Republics legalized “small mines,” which are now required to pay a fee to the government every month. Many were against legalization â€" it is more profitable to work completely illegally.

An Internet search for "buy cheap Donetsk coal" produces more than 50,000 results, most of them nameless companies that have only simple contact information and occasionally an address. The coal is often low-quality, mixed with rocks or coal dust. But people still buy it, especially large electricity plants. In theory, the government gives these plants subsidies to buy legal coal, but the payments are small and rare â€" not enough to pay for legal coal.

Dump-truck secrets

Officially, trade between the unrecognized republics and Ukraine is forbidden. Yet a look at coal purchases for the most recent heating season tells a different story. Approximately a third of Ukraine’s coal came from domestic production. Experts say it’s not possible that Ukraine produced that quantity of coal without using some from Donetsk and Luhansk.

Dmitri, a businessman from Luhansk, confirms that at least 30 trucks leave the autonomous republic filled with coal every day. At the beginning of April, Ukraine’s energy minister confirmed that coal for electrical stations was coming from "occupied territories." The minister insisted that it was buying only coal coming from legal, taxpaying mines.

Ukrainian military and law enforcement have seen first-hand the coal deliveries from Donetsk. Fuel and scrap metal transport columns are regularly stopped on their way to Ukraine from the autonomous republics. At the beginning of the year, the largest bust yet was 18 trucks full of coal. According to one expert on illegal mining in the area, the oligarchs in Donetsk â€" whose businesses were not nationalized, unlike others in the autonomous republics â€" made agreements with the government to share the profits from the coal businesses.

Even though the heating season is behind us, Ukraine still suffers from a serious coal deficit. Electrical plants are eating away at the country's coal reserves, which were never very extensive to begin with. It’s clear that Ukraine needs the coal from Donetsk and Luhansk.

But the high level of criminality in the coal industry in Luhansk and Donetsk, combined with the legal and political difficulties in Ukraine and the interests of everyone who has profited as middlemen in the illegal coal trade, makes regularizing the coal trade extremely complicated.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

La Sagrada Familia Delayed Again — Blame COVID-19 This Time

Hopes were dashed by local officials to see the completion of the iconic Barcelona church in 2026, in time for the 100th anniversary of the death of its renowned architect Antoni Guadí.

Work on La Sagrada Familia has been delayed because of the pandemic

By most accounts, it's currently the longest-running construction project in the world. And now, the completion of work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882, is going to take even longer.

Barcelona-based daily El Periodico daily reports that work on the church, which began as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. But a press conference Tuesday, Sep. 21 confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin).

El Periódico - 09/22/2021

El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world.

One tower after the other… Slowly but surely, La Sagrada Familia has been growing bigger and higher before Barcelonians and visitors' eager eyes for nearly 140 years. However, all will have to be a bit more patient before they see the famous architectural project finally completed. During Tuesday's press conference, general director of the Construction Board of the Sagrada Familia, Xavier Martínez, and the architect director, Jordi Faulí, had some good and bad news to share.

As feared, La Sagrada Familia's completion date has been delayed. Because of the pandemic, the halt put on the works in early March when Spain went into a national lockdown. So the hopes are dashed of the 2026 inauguration in what would have been the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death.

Although he excluded new predictions of completion until post-COVID normalcy is restored - no earlier than 2024 -, Martínez says: "Finishing in 2030, rather than being a realistic forecast, would be an illusion, starting the construction process will not be easy," reports La Vanguardia.

But what's a few more years when you already have waited 139, after all? However delayed, the construction will reach another milestone very soon with the completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years and the second tallest spire of the complex. It will be crowned by a 12-pointed star which will be illuminated on December 8, Immaculate Conception Day.

Next would be the completion of the Evangelist Lucas tower and eventually, the tower of Jesus Christ, the most prominent of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated 13.5 meters wide "great cross." It will be made of glass and porcelain stoneware to reflect daylight and will be illuminated at night and project rays of light.

La Sagrada Familia through the years

La Sagrada Familia, 1889 - wikipedia

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!