Last week, I was fortunate to be able to attend the opening of a Smithsonian Museum of Natural History exhibit dedicated to the rescue of 33 miners from the San José mine in Chile, and meet two of miners whose story captivated the world as they endured 69 days underground following a mine explosion. Carlos Barrios, Jorge Galleguillos, José Henríquez, and Mario Sepúlveda traveled to DC for the opening of “Against All Odds: Rescue at the Chilean Mine,” a small but powerful exhibit whose centerpiece is one of the capsules built to haul the miners up 2,000 feet through the narrow shaft drilled down to their refuge chamber. (Fénix 2 was the capsule that was ultimately used in the rescue; Fénix 1, which appears in the exhibit, served as a test.)

Hernán de Solminihac, Chile’s Minister of Mining, told the crowd that President Sebastián Piñera would send new mine-safety legislation to Congress on August 5th, the anniversary of the explosion, but that improvements had already been made. In fact, he announced, mining fatalities during the first six months of 2011 were half of what they were during the same time period in 2010. I was curious to see what kind of fatality numbers he was talking about – but I was most surprised to see the number of mine inspectors.

According to Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper, between January and June 2010, 25 workers died in Chilean mines; during the same months of 2011, 13 were killed. In early 2010, Chile’s Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (Sernageomin) apparently had only 18 inspectors. Over the past year, that number has risen to 35, and the new legislation proposes to increase it to 45. The article notes that a team of engineers will help inspectors by providing information on risks in different zones, but they will presumably lack the enforcement powers that the government inspectors will have.

The Santiago Times puts this in perspective, noting that the double-digit number of inspectors is responsible for safety in nearly 4,000 mines. (For comparison, the US has approximately 700 inspectors responsible for about 15,000 mines – a ratio four times that of Chile. ) They also report that between 2004 and 2010 the San Esteban Company, owner of the San José mine, was fined 42 times for safety violations, and Sernageomin failed to sanction them after they failed to meet a 120-day deadline for making improvements needed to assure worker safety if a cave-in were to occur.

The Santiago Times’ Benjaim Schneider summarizes the law’s provisions:

According to El Mercurio, if approved, the law will divide the National Geology and Mining Service (Sernageomin) into two separate organizations, the Superintendency of Mining and the Geological Service of Chile.

The new Superintendency of Mining, first proposed right after the cave-in, will have expanded enforcement abilities. It will be responsible for approving new mining projects, supervising safety at mines and sanctioning mines that fail to comply with regulations.

The reforms also seek to double funding for mining oversight from US$24 million to US$56 million and increase the number of mine supervisors from 18 to 45.

Mines will be responsible for safety system self-evaluations and all mines will be required to name an employee in charge of mine safety.

Owners who do not meet regulations can be suspended or fired. Mines that do not meet regulations will be publicly listed on a website, still to be announced, and may face fines of up to US$760,000, according to El Mercurio.

Since 45 inspectors is still a very small number for the approximately 4,000 mines, the new agency will have to rely on the deterrent effect of large fines and public shaming and positive improvements from the self-evaluations. I hope those whose decisions affect mine safety will also remember that the San José mine explosion came very close to ending in devastating tragedy and carried high costs with it – in terms of the miners’ mental health as well as the expenses associated with the rescue. The story should be cautionary as well as congratulatory.

At the Smithsonian exhibit opening, several speakers praised the way Chile and the global community came together to rescue the 33 trapped miners. “Workers and drilling equipment came from the U.S., Canada and other nations; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration consulted on the effects of long-term isolation and rescue-capsule design; and an Israeli company even sent antifungal socks for miners to wear in the steamy environment,” the Smithsonian’s news release explains.

Millions of people around the world were glued to their screens as the rescue capsules descended into the mine and returned with one miner after another, and I’m among those who went through several tissues watching the miners hug their family members and greet the cheering crowd assembled at the site. Many of the best human qualities were on display: determination, ingenuity, generosity, and a willingness to work together and depend on one another to save lives. It was something Chile, and the world, can remember proudly for decades to come.

The challenge now is to apply those same admirable qualities to a task that may lack a compelling narrative but is just as worthwhile. The day-in, day-out process of following safety rules, inspecting worksites, and enforcing laws effectively doesn’t require high-tech equipment from around the world, and it won’t conclude triumphantly in 70 days. The people who do this work may not be able to put names or faces to the lives they’ve saved, or to realize that they themselves could have perished if the safeguards weren’t in place. But saving lives is always worth an extraordinary effort.

Comments

  1. #1 Celeste Monforton
    August 9, 2011

    Thanks for the update one year out from the Chilean mine disaster/rescue. Did you get the sense from the miners themselves that they are pressing for the mine safety improvements? Are they key players in forcing lawmakers to act?

  2. #2 Liz Borkowski
    August 9, 2011

    I didn’t hear anything directly from the miners – they didn’t speak at the event, and my conversations with the two I got to meet were very brief. The most visible signal from the miners about their concern for mine safety is probably the lawsuit that 31 of them are filing against the government, claiming it didn’t do what it should have for mine safety. Hugo Infante writes for Reuters:

    Luis Urzúa, the group’s shift leader underground and their spokesman since resurfacing, says the suit is not about the money, as some believe. Nor is it an attack on the administration of conservative President Sebastián Piñera, who, despite sharply declining approval ratings, can still count Los 33 among his biggest supporters.

    Urzúa insists the misfortune that befell Los 33 was the consequence of years of official negligence. If the celebrity created by their miracle rescue can serve a greater purpose, he says, they hope it will be to help transform safety enforcement in Chile’s vast mining industry.

    “Chile is a country of miners and is socially committed to mining,” says Urzúa. “But it took what happened to us for the government to finally take steps so that these accidents don’t continue to occur.”

    … the 31 plaintiffs plan to use their lawsuit to shape a legacy that protects miners — those who produce the country’s national wealth — by ensuring that safety standards are enforced, which their bosses and government failed to do. “An example of justice has to be made in this country and the world,” miner Mario Sepúlveda told local media. “If a poor supervisor had committed this mistake, he’d probably be in prison.”

    In essence the miners are challenging a business culture in Chile that allows for scores of fatal accidents every year, says Manuel Antonio Garretón, a sociologist at the Univeristy of Chile. Working-class Chileans have rarely had an opportunity like the one offered “Los 33″ to fight for the safety of all who do dangerous work. “At this moment” he says, “nobody is in a morally superior position to the miners.”

    I don’t think the president or Congress needs much forcing to get legislation in place. I suspect that their participation could really have an impact when it comes to implementation – monitoring how well and quickly the changes are made, and being ready to speak out publicly if the Superintendency of Mining isn’t doing a good job.

  3. #3 Peter B
    August 15, 2011

    Mine safety violations should not be subject to court delays and moderate fines. Ordered safety improvements not completed on time should shut down the mine immediately. Inspectors need that authority. Workers to be paid during the shutdown.

    That’s the kind of threat that mine operators understand.

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