The Americas

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Chile's trapped miners

Celebration before a hard slog

Aug 23rd 2010, 14:51 by R.B. | SANTIAGO

FOR the past 17 days, one question has dominated conversation in Chile: could the 33 miners who were working in the San José gold and copper mine when it collapsed on August 5th still be alive? Experts insisted they had ventilation and water of a sort—when a mine caves in, water flows to the bottom, where the workers were believed to be trapped. But had they survived the accident? What about the heat down there, and the lack of food? And could the rescue team, led by experts from Codelco, the country’s state copper producer, reach them in time?

The answer came on Sunday afternoon, when a probe finally located the missing miners 700 metres below the ground. It returned to the surface with a scrap of paper carrying a message scrawled in red felt-tip pen: “We’re alright in the shelter, the 33 of us.” Even Sebastián Piñera, the usually phlegmatic president, seemed on the verge of tears as he shared the jubilation of rescue workers. In Santiago, the capital, which sits 800 km south of the mine, a flag-waving crowd converged on Plaza Italia, a roundabout on the banks of the city’s Mapocho River, where football fans traditionally celebrate their teams’ victories.

But it could still be a long time before the trapped miners see the light of day. The shaft drilled for the probe that made contact can be used to send them food, clean water and medicine. But rescue workers still have to decide how to bring back them to the surface. The options include enlarging the drill hole or digging a new shaft. All are tricky in a mine rendered unstable by the cave-in, and, in the best of cases, will take several months.

The accident has also raised wider questions about mine safety in Chile, which is the world’s biggest copper producer. Serious accidents are rare in the country’s large mines, operated mostly by international companies or Codelco. But conditions are far more precarious in smaller mines like San José, whose operator, Minera San Esteban, has been accused by Antonio Leal, a former local congressman, and by relatives of the stranded workers of paying above-market wages to compensate for concerns over low safety standards. Accidents, moreover, tend to increase when copper prices are high, as at present, since old mines are brought back into production without proper maintenance in search of a quick profit.

One conclusion that has emerged from preliminary investigations is that the staffing and budgets of government enforcement agencies have failed to keep pace with the rapid expansion of the mining industry over the past 20 years. Such an investment could have saved the present government a million-dollar rescue operation and the trapped miners some long, dark weeks.

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Kushluk wrote:
Aug 23rd 2010 5:41 GMT

Yesterday I was passing by Plaza Italia in Santiago and I came across a horde of people celebrating. I was very surprised by the size and intensity of the celebrations, and about the fact that they were happening at all.

I know in the US no one would have cared. I guess small events throw larger shadows in a small country. Oh, and as far as Piñera using this to get a little face time, that is sort of gross. Four months seems absurdly long as well.

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In this blog, our correspondents provide reporting, analysis and opinion on politics, economics, society and culture in Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada.



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