Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chile cave-in highlights LatAm mining accidents

The survival of 33 Chilean trapped several hundred yards below ground in the San Jose mine has been described as “miraculous”. Yet that incident in Copiapo brought increased attention to the issue of mining safety in Latin America.

As we mentioned on Monday, the Chilean government has accused the company that owns the San Jose mine of having a shoddy safety record. Relatives of three miners who died in a 2007 accident have sued the Esteban Primera firm and accused them of ignoring demands to improve work safety conditions. Furthermore, local officials alleged that the company “didn't take measures for the precaution of emergencies” at the San Jose mine.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera recently vowed that he will implement widespread mine safety reform and that those responsible for the August 5th cave-in will not be in impunity. Yet one union spokesman told the Christian Science Monitor that the state needs to do more instead of allowing a “a free-market economy where the first principle is to maximize profit without any other consideration.”

The incident in Copiapo has not been the most recent mining accident in Latin America; six workers were killed on Monday after laboring in an illegal mine in El Callo, Venezuela. Local authorities have tried to crackdown on these “wildcat” mines, yet they are still common in other parts of the region such as Peru where eight workers died in an “informal” coal mine six months ago. Large mine-owning companies have not been exempt from accidents such as the Grupo Mexico-owned Pasta de Conchos coalmine where 66 workers died in a 2006 explosion.

Aside from the Pasta de Conchos explosion one analyst told Reuters that there are big differences in safety between large mines and smaller operations:
"In general, the big companies meet international standards, with skilled labor, modern machines and relatively good safety records," (Chilean professor Jorge) Pontt said.

"But with the small mines there is a huge gap, so it's with the small ones where safety standards are very low," said Pontt, who is an expert on mine safety issues for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers…

Pontt says the only way to improve safety at small mines -- many of which are marginal producers that can only turn a profit when prices are high -- is to introduce more automation, mechanization and remote-control machines.
Image- CBC (“Carlos Araya stands next to Chilean flags representing the 33 miners trapped at the San Jose collapsed mine in Copiapo, Chile, Monday.”)
Online Sources- Reuters, The Latin Americanist, Christian Science Monitor, Xinhua

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