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Chilean Miners Struggle With Hazards, Loose Regulation

September 13, 2010 at 6:36 PM EDT
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Tom Bearden reports on the hazardous conditions in Chile's mining industry and how the ongoing saga of 33 trapped miners is drawing more calls for tighter regulations underground.

GWEN IFILL: Now to the continuing story of the month-long effort to rescue 33 miners trapped underground in Chile. Above ground, where their families wait, anger is mounting over safety conditions at the mine. “NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden reports from the scene.

TOM BEARDEN: Aladina Olivares has been a miner all his life. He works out of a cluster of tumble-down buildings on the side of a mountain in the Atacama Desert about 35 miles from the site where the miners are trapped. This is arguably the driest place on earth. Both NASA and Hollywood have used the terrain to simulate the planet Mars. As a younger man, Olivares worked for some of the big mining companies, but he decided he wanted to be his own boss. So 30 years ago he started working this gold mine by himself.

That’s dangerous, isn’t it?

He sets the explosives and even hauls the ore out of the tunnel on his back, 150 pounds at a time. Olivares says he’s not surprised about what happened in the San Jose mine. He says nobody really cares about the miners. Not the owners, not the government.

ALADINA OLIVARES, miner (through translator): The only thing the owners are interested in is production, production. Keep coming with more minerals. The human part doesn’t matter. If it was just three or four miners stuck below, nobody would care. But because it’s 33, they can’t hide that. There’s too much pressure from the families. And that’s why the state is involved. They’re putting $5 million into this, and they keep putting more money into this. And now we’re going to see who is going to respond.

TOM BEARDEN (on camera): As in most countries, mining in Chile is difficult, dirty and sometimes dangerous. People here are beginning to ask whether it’s more dangerous than it has to be.

The San Jose mine has a long history of fatalities and serious accidents. About 180 miners suffered various injuries in 2006, and the government ordered it closed in 2007. But it reopened less than a year later despite union protests. After the recent cave-in, the government beefed up the Mine Safety Bureau and hired more inspectors, but many people we talked to thought the increased attention wouldn’t last.

ALADINA OLIVARES: I hope the government takes the necessary measures and complies with the law as it is. But as time passes this will usually subside and they forget.

TOM BEARDEN: This copper mine is like the San Jose mine, but it’s run by a family cooperative. Ten relatives do the work, drilling holes to set dynamite charges that blast out chunks of copper-bearing ore. The rubble is then sorted and sold to the state copper agency. Luis Rubina says he worked at the San Jose mine himself several years ago.

LUIS RUBINA, miner (through translator): I worked there. It has always been dangerous. That’s why I quit that mine. I worked there cleaning the ramps. One day I just stopped my machine to go to lunch and never went back. When they explode, they explode a lot. As well, the different levels of the mine are very thin. Sometimes the amount of material on these roads is just too much, which is what happened now.

This is a mine that has always worried about exploding, exploding, and there’s little attention to safety. And sometimes after exploding they leave immense piles of rocks, so much so that you cannot see the roof above. Use 80, 90 sometimes 100 sticks of dynamite at a time, and sometimes this hill just cannot give more.

TOM BEARDEN: Rubina used a long steel rod to show us how loose rock left after blasting can easily be dislodged. That’s why it has to be removed, so it doesn’t fall without warning and cause injuries. He says some of the big mines don’t do this kind of maintenance and don’t follow the existing safety rules.

But after the cave-in, the owners insisted the miners survived because the company had followed the rules. But the company never finished building a mandatory escape ladder. If they had, the miners had a clear path to it and could have used it to escape. That outrages Nelly Bogueno, whose son Victor Zamora is trapped in the mine.

NELLY BOGUENO, miner’s mother (through translator): This mine should be closed. This is an unsafe mine. It doesn’t have ladders to get out. This is a mine that shouldn’t continue giving work to anybody. It’s been overworked. It’s a mine overexploited. You can’t continue to send people who go below this hill because it’s dangerous. It’s very dangerous. You shouldn’t send anybody down there, miner or anybody, if it’s not safe.

TOM BEARDEN: Mining company officials did not respond to requests for an on-camera interview. Jessica Cortez is Victor Zamora’s wife. She’s three months pregnant with their child.

Given what’s happened to your husband and what is still happening, him trapped underground, why would you let him go back to a mine?

JESSICA CORTES, miner’s wife (through translator): I don’t want him to return to the mines. This is something we still need to decide. It’s something we have to talk about when he gets out.

TOM BEARDEN: In a letter Zamora wrote to his mother, he said he also had a lot of thinking to do.

NELLY BOGUENO: “We have a lot to talk about. I’ve been given another chance and I’ve been reborn at 33 years old. I’m 33 and there are 33 miners here. Jesus Christ had 33 years of life. What a coincidence. It could be a miracle. This gives me strength to keep going.”

TOM BEARDEN: The mining union says most of the men don’t have any choice but to go back underground. There just aren’t that many alternatives that pay enough to allow the miners to support their families.

Ximena Matas, the governor of the Atacama region, is often at the mine site to offer updates on the progress of the rescue. She promises there will be an investigation of how this accident happened.

XIMENA MATAS, governor, Atacama Region (through translator): The truth is the performance of the company has been lacking. They’ve been less than rigorous with safety conditions and the workers’ conditions, and their financial situation is also not so good. The government is going to decide through various mechanisms who is responsible, and we are going to demand that they comply with all the labor and safety rules.

We’ve already begun legal investigations. The government prosecutor’s office is also investigating them. The Mining Ministry is investigating who is responsible. And if necessary, the state will act and apply sanctions if it’s shown that they are responsible.

TOM BEARDEN: But sanctions may be hard to enforce. The mining company has filed papers to declare bankruptcy. The company also says it can’t pay anything for the rescue effort, not even the wages owed to its miners.