Chile mine collapse sounds alarm on safety standards

The Chile mine collapse, which has trapped 33 miners underground, occurred at a site where a 2007 explosion killed two people. Aid for the men is being delivered through bore holes.

By , Correspondent , Staff writer

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    Drill work on the San Jose collapsed mine where 33 miners are trapped in Copiapo, Chile, Monday.
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Trapped 2,300 feet underground, the stoicism and spirits of the 33 Chilean miners found alive after nearly three weeks continued to fuel optimism that tragedy will be averted. When Mining Minister Laurence Golborne established a phone link Monday, the miners sang Chile's national anthem.

But as a team of diggers, doctors, and psychiatrists focuses on a mammoth rescue effort that could take up to four months, the nation is grappling with how this happened, and how to prevent such a collapse in the future.

Chile has a free-market economy where the first principle is to maximize profit without any other consideration. We need to take other things into consideration, including worker security,” Augustin Latorre, spokesman for the Mining Federation, an association of 22 unions at private mines, said in a telephone interview. “The state should offer, in particular in mines, the necessary security measures and inspections. We aren't demanding that mines be closed, but that they be secure.”

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On Monday, President Sebastian Piñera set up a new Commission for Worker Safety, which will release a set of recommendations by the end of November to improve workplace conditions. Chief among its tasks will be comparing national legislation to that of other nations, to create a set of best practices and a culture of prevention.

Mr. Piñera said the mine tragedy in northern Chile, 500 miles north of the capital, Santiago, should be used as a lesson moving forward.

Mr. Latorre welcomed the creation of the commission but says it will not function without union representatives, since workers are those best positioned to understand security needs. So far they have not been included, he says.

For now, most of the attention is focused on recovery efforts.

A first bore hole reached the miners on Sunday, through which the rescuers began lowering rehydration tablets and glucose gels. One of their first requests was toothbrushes.

On Monday, a second bore hole for communication reached the men where they sit in a stuffy 500-sq. ft. space. A small microphone dropped through the hole allowed them to speak with the mining minister, and also with their families. The miners explained to rescue teams on the surface that they had stayed alive by rationing two spoons of tuna, sips of milk, and a biscuit every 48 hours.

A third hole for ventilation is now being dug out. The first bore hole was also being reinforced. A giant piece of machinery to ultimately dig the rescue hole is on its way to the collapsed mine in Copiapo.

“The entire nation has been following this search and rescue process,” Mr. Golborne, the mining minister, told the miners Monday. “Yesterday, all of Chile celebrated in every square in every part of this country. They celebrated that we made contact with you.”

Experts say communicating that kind of cohesion is imperative to the men's survival. But above ground, fights are under way.

As the world's top producer of copper, Chile boasts a technologically advanced metals extraction industry. But the company that owns the mine, San Esteban, and the National Mining and Geology Service have been criticized for not complying with regulations, according to the Associated Press. A prior explosion at the site killed two people in 2007, Golborne said Tuesday in an interview on the state TV news network. The mine shouldn't have reopened until there was an escape route, he said.

"There is not going to be any impunity,” said President Piñera, who has already fired two mine safety regulators and said further investigations are under way.

IN PICTURES: Chile mine collapse

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