Chile’s Trapped Miners: The Untold Story of a Tragedy with a Happy Ending

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This is a translation of the article by Francisco Herreros originally published in Red Diario Digital in Chile. The translation, by Roberto Navarrete for alborada.net was published on the 27th of August. We’re republishing it here with Roberto’s permission.

Through sheer good luck, the tough character of the trapped miners, and the extraordinary work of the rescue team, a tragedy, whose outcome had been foretold while this report was being written, experienced a 180-degree turn.

But that does not change the origin of the tragedy, which relate to the unsafe conditions in which mining operates in Chile, and the responsibility of both the owners of the San Jose mine, and the supervisory and regulatory authorities.

Therefore, we have decided to publish our report with only slight amendments.

Nobody dared to talk about it as a mark of respect for the suffering of the miners’ families.

But all of those behind the barrier that prevents access to the security zone that surrounds the site of the rescue operation in the San José mine thought the odds of finding alive any of the 33 miners trapped at the bottom of a tunnel about 800 meters deep were extremely remote.

And even though contact was established with them through one of the eight drilling probes, an unprecedented feat in the annals of rescue operations, to bring them out will take at a low estimate, two to three months.

Meanwhile, in a sort of implicit pact, and in deference to the feelings of family members, both senior officials and those in charge of rescue operations, as well as the press, have avoided the crucial issue of who is responsible for the tragedy.

Two Conflicting Versions

At the makeshift camp that emerged from nowhere after the events of August 5, there are two versions of the accident.

The first, which has been promoted by the Government, the owners of the mine, some family members influenced by the government and the mainstream press, is also the most commonly accepted by the majority of the ordinary public.

According to this point of view, the tragedy of the San José mine is an accident due to the inherent risks in underground mining, and therefore impossible to prevent.

What matters now is to work effectively to get the trapped miners out alive. The issue of criminal liability will be dealt with after the rescue operations are concluded and, in any case, it is a matter for the courts.

The salaries of trapped miners, as well as the compensation and social security for their families, is primarily the responsibility of the company, then the mutual fund and thirdly, the insurance companies.

In the event of failure in any of the links in the chain the state could intervene via its subsidiary role. That is as in the manual.

An Inevitable Consequence

The second view, quite invisible to the public and grossly ignored by the media, is that espoused by the leaders of the 2nd Miners’ Union San Esteban Primera and the provincial CUT [Trade Union Council] in Copiapó, a view that has been endorsed by representatives of mining unions throughout the country who attended the meeting of social and union organisations held on August 13 at the University of Atacama.

This point of view argues that the tragedy, long predicted by mine union leaders, is the inevitable consequence of an economic system that privileges private profits over all other considerations, including safety and even the lives of those who, with their work, generate those profits.

According to this view, the responsibilities are shared between the mine owners, who repeatedly disregarded the safety regulations in an effort to increase production in face of the high copper prices, and the State, as supervisory authority, through institutions such as the National Geology and Mines Service (SERNAGEOMIN), the Labour Inspectorate, the Regional Ministerial Secretariat of Health, the Superintendency of Social Security, the Regional Government, all of which failed to safeguard the integrity of the 33 trapped miners and even the Court of Appeal of Copiapo, which rejected an application for legal protection submitted on March 6, 2004 by the Executive Council of the Trade Unions of Minera San Esteban.

The Rule Rather Than The Exception

The details of their application for legal protection describe the untold story of the tragedy in San Jose.

The union leaders of the San José mine feel the need to disseminate this story if for no other reason than to help prevent the occurrence of accidents in the medium-scale mining industry, which, even if unreported, are a daily occurrence.

According to the government agency SERNAGEOMIN, there were 373 fatal mining accidents in Chile in the last decade and 31 of them alone this year.

According to Ricardo Troncoso, former director of the Service, the average number of accidents ending in death is now 39 to 40 per year.

The President of the Staff Association of SERNAGEOMIN, Luis Enrique Lira, reported that the service has 16 inspectors to oversee the more than 4,500 mines in Chile.

Under these circumstances, the sacking of the top three authorities of the service, ordered by the President of the Republic, represents nothing but a populist “gesture to the gallery”.

In fact, in the San José mine alone there were three fatal accidents before August 5, 2010.

The Price of Greed

The San José mine, located about 60 miles west of Copiapó, has been in almost constant operation since 1869, using an artisan-type of mining technology.

In the mid-80s, it was taken over by San Esteban Primera Mining Company, owned in equal parts by Marcelo Kemeny and Alejandro Bohn, who also acts as general manager.

Although the minerals are of low grade, 0.8% copper and 2.5% gold, exploitation is still profitable using methods of medium-scale mining, namely, exploitation by volume, by blasting, tunnelling and the movement of material with mechanised equipment.

Initially, they worked with a natural fortification consisting of a rock slope of thirty meters thickness between sections of the vein in operation.

If they were to continue with this approach, the owners could go on operating the mine for at least another forty years.

The problem is that “greed breaks the sack”.

In order to increase production the rock slope separating the sections of the vein was reduced to ten meters. As a matter gravitational physics and rock mechanics, the weight of the mountain tends to fill the void created by the tunnels. So, unless wedging fortifications are properly built with bolts and mesh, the mine begins releasing rock material until it starts to collapse.

That’s exactly what happened at 14:30 of the fateful August 5.

At approximately level 350, a huge rock about one million tons “sat” on the tunnels and the access ramp, leaving the 33 workers who had just entered their shift trapped.

Since nothing is known about them, it is possible that the rock may have crushed some of them [Translators Note: Information emerging after this article was published indicates that none of miners were actually hurt].

Breach of Safety Regulations

And herein lies the heart of the matter.

Had they complied with Article 79 of the Mining Safety Regulations, which states: “in a mine in operation there must be at least two main routes of communication with the surface, be it shafts, “dugouts” or tunnels, so that the interruption of one of them does not affect transit through the other”, those 33 miners would have been rescued.

The San Jose and the San Antonio mines, both owned by San Esteban Mining, are, strictly speaking, the same geological unit. If they had been connected, as was strongly demanded by union leaders, there would have been a second emergency access as required by law. Had they complied with the provisions of Article 60 of the regulations according to which “mining companies must keep an updated map of the mine” the probing work would not have been like “finding a needle in a haystack”, as in fact happened with the first probe which reached a level of 750 meters below the surface without success, adding to the agonising wait of the relatives.

Worse still, all these failures in following the safety procedures, bordering on the criminal, had been repeatedly denounced by union leaders. The denouncement succeeded in obtaining the temporary closure of the mine in 2007.

Long Battle

The string of accidents resulting from the precariousness of the mine began in 2001 when the collapse of a slab caused Ivan Toro’s leg to be amputated.

But the first fatal accident occurred on March 4, 2004, when Pedro Gonzalez Rojas, an employee of the contractor Holvoet died.

It was then when Javier Castillo, President of the Workers’ Union No. 2 of Compañía Minera San Esteban and Daniel Urrutia, President of El Remanso Union, presented a legal protection writ to the Appeals Court of Copiapó, seeking the permanent closure of the San Antonio and San Jose mines.

Note the profusion of trade names used by the same company, a common practice used by employers to avoid payment of social rights and weaken the unions.

Section 2 of the application states: “This accident is the culmination of a
sequel that has dragged on for more than five years during which labour unions that have been constantly denouncing the situation to the respective regulatory agencies, which did not ever give an effective response to the problems reported.”

Then point 4 adds: “The company has based its business productivity model on the ability of workers to take risks, and despite constant meetings to define a policy for safe work, the company has insisted on putting workers at risk by indicating that agencies charged with the role of supervising the safety of workers did not bother to do it properly.”

But it is point 6 that should resonate with grim echoes in the national consciousness: “that despite the above facts, the company persists in continuing work in the San Antonio mine, which in November suffered a collapse exposing workers to another accident, and what is even worse, to the risk of becoming trapped, for not even the minimum legal regulations are complied with such as the existence of an alternative route of escape. ”

Among the evidence, they provided a video and a series of photographs.

The caption that accompanies picture No. 3 states that “in this picture the weakening of the mountain is evident, as reflected in the crack caused by a blast, which runs the risk of a possible collapse, in case of any violent action, whether natural or artificial. This also evidences the lack of permanent control of the ceiling wedging, the main cause of the accidents that have occurred in the San Antonio and San Jose mines.”

Among the documents that provide evidence of their repeated requests to the regulatory agencies, is a letter of March 17, 2000 addressed to SERNAGEOMIN, two letters to the Superintendency of Social Security, in December 2002 and December 2003, a letter to Health Service of Atacama dated 17 January 2003, a letter to the CEO of the company in November 23, 2003, two information memoranda to the workers summarising meetings held with the company, in November and December 2003, a letter to the Regional Inspectorate, on February 19, 2004, and a letter to the Regional Labour Directorate, the same day.

Nobody listened to them. Today, 33 miners are trapped 800 meters deep, and we don’t know whether they are alive or not.

Sub Terra

The final paragraph of their application for legal protection is a description of the conditions under which mining operates today in Chile that even Baldomero Lillo [Translators Note: A 19th century Chilean novelist who worked in and wrote about the terrible conditions suffered by workers in the mines. His best know novel is called ‘Sub Terra'] could not have surpassed: “Although they are aware of our deep sorrow and having shown no respect for the memory of our colleagues, both Compañia Minera San Esteban and SERNAGEOMIN have been locked in a sterile discussion, trying to divert the attention from the underlying problem instead of looking for real solutions to the deplorable conditions in which we work as have become manifest in the death of Pedro. But we could not do anything, because they had convinced us that those were the optimal conditions for work. We have continually fallen prey to severe psychological contradictions: on the one hand we put our own lives at risk every day we enter the mine, and on the other, our obligation to provide a livelihood for our families, often unknowing of the risks we experience so as not to worry them unnecessarily. But it is not only our internal pressure which makes us doubt, but also the pressure from our employers, using the argument of unemployment, so often tried before, and in seeking signatures of support from people who have never known the rigours of spending eight hours of endless work inside a mine.”

Arrogance

By contrast, the document in which the company responds to the appeal for legal protection, signed by the operations manager, engineer Maximo Uribe, is an ode to the arrogance of neoliberal Chile.

It contends that the workers writ contains a number of statements of fact “which we shall discuss and rebut, although they do not conform to a rational structure, often veering away from the legal”, and then adds that union leaders state in the appeal, “the occurrence of various contingencies from their particular and biased viewpoint.”

Then comes the real gem: “It is important to remark that the statements that are made reveal a lack of any serious technical base and reflect only the personal opinion of its members. SEP always executes its work based on geomechanical studies supported by professionals in the field, in compliance with the rules contained both in the regulations and other laws that apply to the execution of underground mining tasks.”

For the operations manager, the group of workers who submitted the appeal “corresponds to an organisation which in fact has no recognition in law.”

On March 31, 2004, the Copiapó Court of Appeal rejected by five votes to zero, the application for legal protection, a ruling that was hailed as a “triumph” by the company.

Fatal Outcome

Previously, on March 24, the company and the unions reached an agreement to create secure conditions for the resumption of work. After all, unemployment is a big monster which treads hard, and in Atacama there are almost no other sources of employment apart from mining and gathering fruit in season.

According to Javier Castillo, some of the safety measures were implemented in 2005, but began to be relaxed again in 2006. So much so that in November 30, 2006 Fernando Contreras died in an accident, and the same happened to Manuel Villagrán on January 5, 2007.

The National Service of Geology and Mines Decrees the Closure of the San José Mine

On May 30, 2008, considering that the company presented “a draft ventilation, electrical and geomechanical study which included reinforcement systems and geotechnical monitoring”, SERNAGEOMIN, with the signature of Assistant Director of Mines (S), Patricio Leiva Urzua, authorised the reopening of the San José mine.

Meanwhile, the company sacked the entire workforce and hired a new contingent, which temporarily ended with the union.

However, through the patient work of the trade union leadership team, headed by the Chairperson, Evelyn Olmos, Secretary Javier Castillo, who is banned from entering the mine, and treasurer, Fernando Yanez, an organisation representing 70 of the 350 workers at the San Esteban Mining was rebuilt.

On the July 1, 2010, on the occasion of the visit to the provincial parliament of the CUT Copiapó due to the COEMIN strike, Javier Castillo had the opportunity to talk with the current Minister of Mines, Laurence Golborne, and warned him about the unsafe conditions of the San Jose mine.

On July 3, the fall of a slab caused the amputation of Gino Cortes’ leg.

On July 5, Javier Castillo attends the Ministry of Mines, but was not received by the Minister. However, he left a memorandum documenting his concern at the conditions of the San José mine, via the secretary of the Head of Cabinet.

On July 30, 2010, a report from the Labour Department warned of serious deficiencies in the safety of San Jose deposit, implying a clear danger to life and physical integrity of workers, yet the Minister did not take any action.

The hourglass of fate for the 33 workers seemed to stop at 14:30 of August 5, 2010. None of those who had authority to change the course of events lived up to expectations. The happy ending lessened the weight of the tragedy over their conscience. But still, the whole country will remain entranced by a tragedy that should never have happened and could easily have been avoided.

The long battle of Javier Castillo and the union leadership for safety conditions in the mine failed to prevent the disaster that could have taken the life of 33 of his workmates, but at least, it will remain as an unshakable testimony at the time of apportioning responsibilities.

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4 Responses

  1. William Wall

    October 17, 2010 9:56 am

    The pap being put about today is that the Chilean mine rescue is a renewal of neoliberalism’s faith in itself. This article sets it in its proper context
    I also note with interest the subtle transformation of language in the news reportage. Early reports from the trapped miners told us that the group had sworn solidarity. By the time the last miner had emerged from the company’s carelessly constricted trap, the word ‘solidarity’ had become ‘loyalty’. Equally, ‘cooperation’ had been converted to ‘teamwork’. So, words can still be dangerous. The miners could not be allowed to have a dangerous sense of solidarity, but ‘loyalty’ and ‘teamwork’ are such sound neoliberal principles as to be harmless.

  2. Tomboktu

    October 17, 2010 12:38 pm

    Yeah, see here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703673604575550322091167574.html?mod=WSJ_hps_MIDDLEForthNews

    But David Ruccio points out that it was capitalist the firm Compañía Minera San Esteban that traped 33 people underground for 69 days.

    And last night on RTÉ Radio 1’s country and bluegrass concert for its Music Week, the presenter performed a song he wrote about a mining accident in Virginia that had a hapy ending. He told the audience that when he wrote it, he sent it to a country singer in the USA who turned it down because the ending wasn’t realistic.

  3. Pope Epopt

    October 18, 2010 3:10 pm

    Great – the reasons for the miners down there in the first place was glaringly missing from all the ‘human interest’ coverage. Now we have chapter and verse.