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.

In carefully crafted media appearances, President Sebastian Pinera, a former businessman, has emerged as a leader willing to take on corporate irresponsibility, vowing to overhaul labor safety regulations and bring to justice those responsible for the accident, whether they are part of the company or part of the government.

“This has left Pinera in a stronger political position and the challenge now is to sustain public interest and attention during the time it takes to rescue the miners in order to maintain the political leverage he has now achieved,” said Robert Funk, academic vice director of the University of Chile’s Institute of Public Affairs.

A few days after the accident, Pinera dismissed the national director of Sernageomin, Alejandro Vio, the Atacama regional director of the agency, Rodolfo Diaz, and another top agency official.

More recently, Pinera announced the creation of a work safety commission in charge of drafting a report over the next three months on safety conditions in mining, agriculture and industry.

This week, the Minister of Mining announced major surgery to Sernageomin, "so that accidents like the San Jose mine will never happen again." The plan includes creating a Superintendence of Mining, doubling its annual budget and increasing the number of its inspectors from the current 18 to 45.

But laws and regulations aren’t the problem, says mining engineer Agustin Holgado.

“Chile has one of the strictest mining safety standards in the world, especially in large mining operations, with specific codes and its own regulatory agency,” he said. “The problem is enforcement, especially in medium to small-size mines. I have been manager of mines the size of San Jose and I’ve never seen workers exposed to such extreme risk as in that mine.”

Five days after the mine collapsed, the congressional mining commission opened an investigation into the causes of the accident, mining safety and enforcement. Former and current Sernageomin officials have been called to testify, as have the owners of the company, who have not shown up so far.

In Atacama, the regional public prosecutor’s office is investigating the company owners for their responsibility in Gino Cortes’ accident and the cave in on Aug. 5. Both owners have gone through lengthy interrogations.

This week, two lawsuits were filed on behalf of the miners’ families, both against the company owners and government officials responsible for allowing the mine to operate in unsafe conditions. Another lawsuit was filed against the company for breach of legal duty in order to prevent it from transferring its assets to third parties.

Another parallel drama is playing out among the more than 100 San Jose miners who have suddenly found themselves without work. The company paid the August salaries to its 140 workers — including the families of the 33 — but announced that it didn’t have enough funds to cover September and beyond.

Bohn, one of the owners, said in a radio interview that they would ask the government for help to cover the payments. His attorney, Hernan Tuane, said that if the company was flooded with lawsuits, they might have to file for bankruptcy.

And that was the last straw.

“What they are saying is incredible,” said Golborne, the mining minister. “The main responsibility for all of this is theirs. They can forget that the government will help a company that has behaved in such a manner.”

In fact, the government brought the case to the State Defense Council, an autonomous body in charge of protecting state assets, to ensure the San Esteban Mining Company pays back the enormous amount of resources the government has and will spend on rescue efforts.

Meanwhile, Sernageomin, which claims that it doesn’t have the resources or personnel to adequately supervise all the mines in Chile, has closed 18 small- and medium-sized mines in the Atacama region since the accident. Most of the infractions are for unsafe working conditions, including lack of ventilation shafts, alternative evacuation exits and emergency shelters.

“There is a before and an after to the mine cave in. Now, we are all in the eye of the hurricane,” Jorge Pavlevic, the president of the Mining Association of Taltal, told a local paper.