Connect to share and comment

Poor safety standards led to Chilean mine disaster

As drama surrounding 33 trapped miners in Chile unfolds, the lawsuits begin.

Miner inspects shaft
A miner inspects a new shaft in the San Javier mine, near Copiapo, Chile, Aug. 27, 2010. (Ariel Marinkovic/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTIAGO, Chile — When the dust settled several hours after the mine caved in on them, the 33 miners began climbing the emergency ladder in a ventilation shaft that would lead them to the surface 2,300 feet above. But they only got a third of the way.

The mine owners had never bothered to finish the ladder to the top.

In their first remote phone contact with government officials above ground 18 days after getting trapped in the San Jose mine in the Atacama Desert, the miners told them that the emergency ladder, which every mine in Chile is supposed to have, did not exist.

“That evacuation exit was clear for 48 hours after the accident, and the miners could have gotten out if the ladder had been fully in place,” said an upset Laurence Golborne, the country’s mining minister, to the media after speaking with the shift leader Luis Urzua inside the mine.

The owners of the San Esteban Mining Company that controls the mine said that it was thanks to their safety regulations that the miners were found alive and well. But this outraged the workers’ families and worsened their public image. Not even the refuge at the bottom of the mine, where the miners were presumed to be while rescue workers drilled into the solid rock for two weeks in an effort to reach them, was a safe haven.

On Thursday, a small camera was lowered down the grapefruit-sized duct that has been piping messages, water, food and supplies to the miners. With one miner filming and another illuminating the inside of the mine with the beam of his safety helmet, the miners showed their living conditions and took turns greeting their loved ones.

“This is the famous refuge,” said miner Mario Sepulveda in the video, as he pointed to the shabby sign with “Refuge” stamped on it. “It was supposed to be in conditions to shelter us, but when we got here, the energy was cut off and there was no ventilation,” he said bitterly.

It was an accident waiting to happen. And after it happened, the medium-sized gold and copper mine, 500 miles north of Santiago, became the epitome of unsafe mining practices. Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny, owners of the San Esteban Mining Company, have been demonized by the public as an example of the ultimate disregard for human life.

Miner unions had continuously accused the San Jose mine for its faulty safety measures, but the company attracts workers with higher than average salaries and benefits. In 2004, miner Pedro Gonzalez died after a cave in. In 2006, a truck driver in the mine, Fernando Contreras, was also killed in an accident. That same year 182 workers were injured, 56 of them seriously, according to Vincenot Tobar, a risk management expert who worked for the company until late last year.

Bohn and Kemeny were charged with involuntary manslaughter for Contreras’ death, but the case was dropped in 2008 after they agreed to pay the family some $170,000 in compensation.

In January 2007, a geologist assistant, Manuel Villagran, died in the San Jose mine after a rock explosion, and Sernageomin, the government body responsible for supervising mining safety standards, ordered the mine closed.

However, less than a year later the San Jose mine was back in operations, even though it had not complied with the basic safety measures ordered by Sernageomin. One of those measures was supposed to be completing the evacuation ladder. Less than two months ago, another miner, Gino Cortes, suffered the amputation of his leg in another avoidable accident.

The latest dramatic accident in the 120-year-old mine has again turned the spotlight on mining safety and the need for stricter supervision in a country that is reputed to be the world’s top copper producer. It is considered the second worst major accident in modern mining history since 1945, when 355 workers suffocated in the El Teniente mine, then owned by the Braden Copper Company.

The government, meanwhile, is riding high on its success in finding the miners on Aug. 22, all alive and in fairly good condition. From the anonymity of a former CEO, Golborne has leaped to stardom, signing autographs and having his picture taken with cheering supporters on the street.