Sunday 29 August 2010 | Chile feed

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Families of trapped Chilean miners to sue mining firm

Families of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground are to sue the site's owner for negligence after it emerged it repeatedly ignored warnings about safety concerns and was repeatedly fined for breaching regulations.

 
Families of trapped Chilean miners to sue mining firm
Relatives of 33 trapped miners wait for news outside the collapsed mine San Jose in Copiapo, Chile Photo: AP

One family has already lodged a claim against the mining firm San Esteban Primera and a lawyer representing families of 24 of the trapped miners says he is preparing a case to be submitted imminently.

The company has warned them that it is considering filing for bankruptcy and may not be able to pay salaries owed to the miners when they finally emerge, let alone damages that might be awarded by the impending lawsuits.

Edgardo Reinoso, the lawyer representing 24 families, said someone had to be held responsible for what had happened. "Luckily they are alive, but the harm that the situation has caused for them and their families is huge," he said.

Three people have died in the past six years at mines run by the company in Chile's northern Atacama Desert, and scores more have been injured in explosions and landslides.

Between 2004 and 2010, the firm is understood to have accumulated 42 fines from various Chilean safety bodies for failing to protect its workers.

The third death in the company's mines came in January 2007, when a geologists' assistant, Manuel Villagran Diaz, was killed in an explosion at San Jose.

Following that incident, the company was told to install ladders in escape tunnels for miners to use in the event of shaft collapses but failed to do so.

One of the miners now trapped underground, Shift foreman Luis Urzua, said his team found their way to the emergency shaft but were unable to climb it. "We attempted to get up through the air shaft but as it didn't have a ladder we aborted," he said.

Vincelot Tobar, who was in charge of risk prevention for San Esteban, claimed its bosses always put production before safety. He resigned in 2009 – he said out of exasperation at the company's failure to institute safety recommendations. The company claims he was to blame for two of the deaths.

"They never carried out the most fundamental adjustments needed to avoid disasters like what we're seeing today," he said. "They always pushed on production. I was the only risk assessor, without a computer, secretary or even a phone."

In the latest disaster, 33 miners were trapped on August 5 when the roof of the San Jose mine they were operating in collapsed.

Rescue workers drilling down into the mine had almost given up hope of finding the miners alive when on Sunday they successfully drilled a narrow hole into an emergency shelter 2,300ft down where the men had gathered.

Now, as the mining industry assembles experts to open up a rescue shaft to pull the men out – a lengthy process that they have warned could take months – the recriminations have begun.

Along with San Esteban, families say they plan to take legal action against Sernageomin, the government body that granted permission for the mine to be reopened in 2008 after a previous death and allegedly failed to ensure that safety recommendations had been implemented.

It has emerged that because of budget constraints, there were only 16 safety auditors for more than 4,500 mines in Chile. In the Atacama Region, there were only three inspectors for 884 mines.

Ramberto Valdes, a Santiago lawyer hired to represent the family of trapped miner Raul Bustos, said he was pursuing both criminal and civil charges against those responsible.

"It will give the families the best option to win compensation as even if the company does declare itself bankrupt they will face criminal charges" Mr Valdes said.

Carolina Narváez, Mr Bustos' wife, said: "I'm not thinking of monetary compensation. I'm thinking of holding people responsible. Not only the mine's owners but also people who didn't do their job."

The recently-elected President of Chile, Sebastian Pinera has demanded the resignation of three top Sernageomin officials and set up a new Commission for Worker Safety, which will release a set of recommendations by the end of November to improve workplace conditions.

Pinera, whose popularity has soared because of his handling of the crisis, said the mine tragedy should be used as a lesson moving forward, adding: "There will be no impunity."

San Esteban's owners have said little so far but on Thursday said it was too early to apportion blame. "Now is not the time to point fingers or ask for pardons," Alejandro Bohn, joint owner of the mining company, told Chilean national television.

 
 
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