Problems With San Jose Mine Emerge in Wake of Trapped Miners’ Ordeal

BY Tom Bearden  September 13, 2010 at 11:30 AM EST

COPIAPO, Chile | For about a month now, most of the international stories about the Chilean mine disaster have been about what many people see as a miracle: that all 33 miners survived the cave-in that took place on Aug. 5. There have been stories about the leadership shown by Luis Urzua, the foreman on duty that day, and about Yonny Barrios, the miner who is using medical skills he learned taking care of his ailing mother to treat other miners’ medical problems.

Now, less-uplifting stories are emerging. The San Jose mine has for years been plagued by fatalities and accidents. In 2006, for example, some 180 miners suffered both minor and serious injuries. The government reportedly ordered the mine closed in 2007, but it reopened less than a year later despite vociferous protests from the miners’ union. The company has filed documents in preparation for bankruptcy, and no one knows when the San Jose miners — trapped and otherwise — might get paid.

We spoke with two independent miners about safety issues. Luis Rubina works at a mine that is operated by a family cooperative. He says he once worked at the San Jose mine, and he told us they didn’t follow government-mandated safety rules. Press reports indicate that the agency responsible for mine inspections was seriously understaffed before the accident. The government has now doubled the number of inspectors.

Independent gold miner Aladina Oliveres (pictured here) said the real problem is that nobody really cares about the miners — that all the owners and the government really care about is revenue. The San Jose Mine’s owners did not respond to several requests for an on-camera interview.

Miners’ relatives are outraged. Nelly Bogueno’s son, Victor Zamora, is one of the men trapped in the mine. She told us the mine should be closed immediately and never reopened. When asked whether her son should return to the mines after he’s rescued a couple of months from now, she said she’d rather he didn’t. But she added that he didn’t have much of a choice, because mining is about the only job available that pays enough to support his family. Most miners make about $1,000 a month.

We’ll have more on the story on Monday’s PBS NewsHour.