High Toll Indicated in Soviet Mine Blast : Officials Blame Methane Gas for Explosion in Southern Ukraine

Times Staff Writer

A major coal miner disaster has occurred in the Donetsk region south of Moscow, an official Tass news agency dispatch indicated Thursday.

It said that a methane explosion at a mine about 60 miles east of Donetsk, the major city in the Donbass coal basin of the southern Ukraine, "caused loss of human lives" Wednesday.

No figures were provided on dead and injured in the four-paragraph Tass report on the methane explosion at a Tasubivjsajata-Glubokoaya mine.

Major Accident

But the fact that the announcement was made by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the Soviet Council of Ministers indicated that it was a major accident, with a high casualty count.

The Tass announcement said the three top-level party and government organizations in Moscow "sent deep condolences to the families and relatives of the killed miners and to the workers, engineers and technicians of the mine."

"The Soviet government and republican authorities are taking measures to give aid to the surviving families and to remove the consequences of the accident," the statement said.

The report was the latest example of glasnost, or public openness, since Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev achieved power. In the past, coal mine disasters were not reported in the Soviet press.

But the lack of casualty figures or any indication of the cause of the accident indicated that glasnost has its own limits, too.

According to wire service reports, work shifts in the Donetsk mine, in the Don River basin, would have been at normal strength Wednesday because the Russian Orthodox Christmas is Jan. 7, and the Soviet government does not recognize the holiday anyway.

Best-Known Coal Area

The Donetsk region of the Ukraine is the best-known coal-producing area of the western Soviet Union and remains a key source of energy despite the rise of production in Siberia.

However, wire services said, authorities have complained of lagging coal and oil production, and the government has been shifting investment into the vast Siberian fields. Only a third of the Donetsk reserves have been mined, but the rest is expensive to reach.

The concentration of methane, which was blamed for the Wednesday explosion, rises as the miners push deeper into the earth in search of coal.

Old, Deep Mines

The coal mines of the Donetsk are old, deep operations, while the new mines of Siberia are generally open-pit operations, stripping the coal from the surface without using shafts and underground miners.

Since the glasnost policy took hold in the wake of last April's explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear facility, Soviet authorities have disclosed a series of accidents--most of them blamed on human error, frequently involving drunkenness.

On Aug. 31, the passenger liner Admiral Nakhimov collided with a bulk carrier, killing at least 398 people. On Nov. 10, an estimated 300 schoolchildren were rescued from lifeboats after their ship caught fire in the Sea of Japan.

Fatal train collisions and aircraft crashes have also been reported in recent months.

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