By Patrick Vanderpool
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
TIERRA AMARILLA, Chile – With the world’s attention focused directly on the 33 rescued Chilean miners over the last couple of weeks, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera has vowed to strengthen health and safety standards for miners in the future.
Although miraculous, the rescue, and scrutiny that came along with it, has proven devastating to many mine workers. New, strengthened regulations will undoubtedly cause mines to shut down for periods of time, and for some, permanently, putting many Chileans out of work in one of the country’s largest industries.
Northern Chilean mines are home to a vast amount of valuable copper, spurring investment to uncover the untapped resources. Mining accounts for 40 percent of the state’s revenue and employs 170,000 people, about 10,000 of them just in the smaller mines in northern Chile.
The government crackdown on mining has closed dozens of mines or restricted operations until tunnels can be made safe, escape shafts can be dug and ventilation can be improved. Piñera said he would triple the budget of mine safety agency Sernageomin, whose top regulators he fired after the collapse in San Jose but which had only three inspectors to oversee hundreds of mines in northern Chile.
Fernando Rivadeneira, a 45-year veteran miner, whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were also miners, stated “[t]his is all paralyzed now,” pointing to the small mine he owns and where he works.
Like the rest of the general public, the miners recognize the need and importance of a safer work environment in the mines. However, they face unemployment as the only alternative because up to this point, the government has not offered any aid to those who will be forced out of work.
An inspection in September determined that Rivadeneira needed to reinforce tunnels in the mine that he operates, which means lining them with wooden timbers and industrial netting to capture falling rocks. Rivadeneira, who is being forced out of a job himself, has also lost several workers on his crew due to the closing.
Rivadeneira said, “They are right about it, [b]ut I cannot just go work at something else. I am 62 and no one is going to give me a job.” Nobody will argue that improved safety is a negative thing for the mining industry. However, there are unintended consequences that cannot be ignored.
Although Chile has some of the toughest regulations in the region leading to a drop in mining accidents and fatalities, 31 miners have died this year, and government regulators admit that only a fraction of mining operations are ever inspected.
For more information, please see:
Washington Post – Government crackdown after mine collapse leaves other Chilean miners feeling left out in the cold – 16 October 2010
Bloomberg – Pinera Vows to Improve Chile Mine Safety After Rescue – 14 October 2010
CBC News – Chilean mine safety under scrutiny – 14 October 2010