The explosion ripped through the massive Zasyadko mine in the eastern city of Donetsk on Nov. 18. In addition to the colossal toll of the blast and its immediate aftermath, five cleanup workers were killed and dozens were injured in two explosions at the mine over the following two weeks.
First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchinov, who heads the government commission investigating the tragedy, said the push by mine managers for greater output led them to ignore safety rules.
"The main problem was that the mine's work load was colossal," Turchinov told the AP in an interview. "The volumes of production were such that it was very difficult to observe all the safety norms. As result we had this horrifying death toll."
Turchinov said the methane blast occurred at a depth of some 4,000 feet and was probably caused by a spark from faulty electronic equipment.
Experts say Ukraine's mines are dangerous largely because they are so deep. Further west in Europe, most coal beds are around 1,800 feet.
Methane is a natural byproduct of mining, and its concentration increases with depth. More than 75 percent of Ukraine's some 200 coal mines are classified as dangerous due to high methane concentrations.
Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, more than 4,800 miners in Ukraine have been killed.
Experts say the sector badly needs reform to battle widespread corruption and inefficiency, which leads to frequent accidents. Eugene Cherviachenko, a mining analyst with the investment bank Concorde Capital, said increasing oversight of the sector and privatizing dozens of mines that are still state-owned would help tackle the problem.
"I think privatization is a solution," Cherviachenko said. "Private owners are more efficient in this case and will at least finance modernization programs."
Despite the dangers, there is growing appetite for Ukraine's rich coal reserves, particularly amid rising natural gas prices.
Turchinov said the government will now drastically increase oversight of mines, especially of Zasyadko, but that Ukraine cannot afford to give up coal production.
"Unfortunately, because of the conditions our state is in, in terms of energy security of the country, today we have no alternative to coal," Turchinov said.