After being shelled repeatedly and pushed to the brink of shutdown, the Avdiyivka Coke and Chemical Plant in eastern Ukraine’s war-torn Donetsk region is once again running at full capacity. The factory is one of the largest coke producing plants in Europe and plays a vital role in fueling Ukrainian industry. It now produces purified coal fuel at a rate not seen since early 2014, before the start of the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service photographer Andriy Dubchak visited the Avdiyivka Coke and Chemical Plant and found the factory is expanding its facilities.
The Avdiyivka Coke and Chemical Plant is located in eastern Ukraine’s war-torn Donetsk region and was repeatedly hit by mortar and artillery shells. With almost four thousand workers, the sprawling 340-hectare factory is one of the largest coke producing facilities in Europe. By then end of 2018, the plant passed its prewar production rate of 8,500 tons of coke per day. It is now running at full capacity, producing 9,300 tons of coke daily.
Coke is a purified form of coal and a valuable industrial fuel. Coke is produced by heating normal coal for 22 hours in special airless furnaces that reach temperatures of 1,100 degrees Celsius. With its concentrated carbon content, coke produced from the Avdiyivka plant is used to fuel steelmaking furnaces across Ukraine. The Ukrainian government called the Avdiyivka plant a “strategic asset” for the country’s economy.
The Avdiyivka Coke and Chemical Plant is part of the Metinvest group which is controlled by Ukrainian oligarch and billionaire industrialist Rinat Akhmetov. The plant produces more than 30 products including coke which fuels 23 percent of Ukraine’s steelmaking blast furnaces.
A car loaded with flaming sintered coke departs from the furnace for cooling. When the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Avdiyivka plant lost its main coal supply after Russia-backed separatist took control of three Metinvest mines near the Russian border. By 2017, output fell to 5,000 tons of coke per day due to a lack of coal and electricity. The plant was forced to find new suppliers and began receiving coal from American and Australian companies later that same year.
Serhiy Petrenko has worked at the plant for almost 11 years and repairs hot furnaces. He helped restore dormant coke oven batteries, one of which hadn’t been used for more than two-and-a-half years due to the conflict. Coke oven batteries are rows of long vertical ovens used to purify coal. “My work is interesting and creative,” said Serhiy, “everything is for the sake of our domestic production.”
Residents say the coke plant is crucial for the city of Avdiyivka and its local economy. The plant not only employees four thousand people, it provides heating fuel at prices much lower than in other regions of Ukraine.
The Avdiyivka Coke Plant was repeatedly hit by mortar and artillery shells during the height of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. The fighting got so bad that the company was on the verge of stopping operations some 15 times. Workers risked their lives and struggled to keep the furnace fires burning otherwise the ovens would have cooled and cracked. The cost of repairing and restarting them would have been prohibitively expensive.
Twelve employees were killed by shelling in and around the plant when fighting was at its worse. Two workers died inside the factory after being hit by debris, including 25-year-old Serhiy Kruglenko. He died at the exit of his shop. His colleagues have installed a memorial plaque at the spot where he fell. Some walls at the plant are still scarred by the shelling.
The general director of the Avdiyivka Coke Plant, Musa Magomedov, says the Russian sea blockade of the Kerch Strait has not affect operations at the plant. “Unlike other companies of the Metinvest Group, we have not suffered from a sea blockade,” he said. “For us, coal supplies are delivered through a port in Odesa and then brought to us by rail.”
Several plant workers live in territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists. They stay in Avdiyivka during the work week and return home on weekends. After their shifts end on Friday, company buses drive the workers to the nearest checkpoint and pick them up on Monday morning.
The coke plant says it has repaired all the damage in the plant from the shelling and is now investing cash to improve infrastructure in the city of Avdiyivka. It says it spent 18 million hryvnia ($640,000) last year on social development programs in the city, mostly to repair medical and educational institutions. There are plans to construct a swimming pool in Avdiyivka in 2019.
In December, the plant completed the construction of a new tube furnace for heating resin. At a cost of 51 million hryvnias ($1.8 million), the new furnace will help avoids stoppages in operation and will reduce emissions from the heating of resin by almost 90 percent.
Snow in the plant covered with coal dust. The plant’s management says it is paying as much attention as possible to the ecological impact of coke production.
On December 1, a giant torch was relit at the Avdiyivka Coke and Chemical Plant to celebrate the return to full capacity. The torch, which had always been a symbol of production and stability, was turned off at the onset of hostilities because coke output had dropped dramatically. After several years of darkness, the torch once again illuminates the Donbas steppes.