As Chile mine rescue nears, families pressure government to reform industry

Families say they want the mine owners to spend as many days in jail as the Chile miners have spent underground. After two months trapped, their rescue could come as soon as Tuesday.

By , Correspondent

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    Relatives of the 33 trapped miners sing Chile's national anthem during a vigil outside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, Oct. 7.
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As 33 miners trapped in a copper and gold mine here wait for drills to free them after more than two months of captivity, most of their families are suing to send the mine owners to jail for as many days as the miners spend underground.

"For every day, minute, and second they are underground, we want [the mine owners] to spend that time in jail," said Brunilda Gonzalez, mayor of the Caldera municipality, where the miners remain trapped.

With freedom for the miners inching closer by the hour and rescuers expected to complete a 28-inch hole to the workers' underground refuge today, the families hope to use the global spotlight to push the government to strengthen Chile's mine safety standards and punish those at fault in the current incident.

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IN PICTURES: Chile mine collapse

"No Chilean businessman has ever paid a day in jail" for miner deaths or injuries, said Ms. Gonzalez. "We aren't just asking for money. We are saying this was negligent homicide. A businessman knows that sending workers to a work without safety measures is sending them to their deaths."

She spoke to reporters Thursday night in Camp Hope, the sprawling tent community outside the gates of the San Jose mine high in the Chilean desert. She had arrived with mattresses for family members who have been camped out since Aug. 5, when a cave-in locked the men in the deepest part of the mine, about 700 meters (2,300 feet) underground.

33 trapped, another 33 dead

While the 33 trapped miners have gained fame and drawn television crews from as far as China, England, and the United States, another 33 have died anonymously in Chilean mines this year, according to the government safety agency. The country is the world's biggest copper producer, with most of the production coming from a few tremendous mines. Most of the injuries and deaths are in smaller projects, according to the mining regulator known as Sernageomin.

The families are also suing for $12 million in a civil case against the mine owners, and are considering another $12 million case against the government and the mine inspectors who gave the go-ahead to operate the site.

The mine's owners, Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny, have spoken little since the accident. Mr. Bohn told Chilean legislators that the owners weren't at fault for any safety lapses, as the mine had been reviewed by safety regulators before it reopened in 2008, Santiago newspaper El Mercurio reported Aug. 31. Bohn also said his company hadn't pressured the government to approve the mine's safety, according to the newspaper.

No one answered calls to the company's Santiago offices today. The National Mining Society, the industry trade association, had no immediate comment.

Strengthening safety laws

"I've never heard of anyone doing something wrong at a high level, public or private, going to jail," says Armen Kouyoumdjian, a Chile-based risk analyst who has covered the country for 35 years. A private lawsuit is unlikely to have much effect without government help, he says, as cases drag on for so long that even when the process works, it is often too late to help the survivors of an accident.

The government is also working to change rules, says Alejandro Garcia, president of the mining commission in the country's legislature. He said the attorney general is investigating the mine's owners and the legislature may make grave negligence a crime.

"It's going to be much tougher," he said today in an interview outside the mine. While not a culture of impunity, it is hard to convict a person for negligence under currents laws, he says.

Risk worth taking?

Miners and their families knew that the San Jose mine had a bad reputation when they went to work there, family members say. Workers decided to take the risk because the mine's salaries were better than average and because the mine had received a recent operating permit from the government, they say.

"He knew about the lack of safety," says Carmen Baeza, the 57-year-old wife of trapped mechanic Juan Illanes. Her husband, 52, has 38 years of mining experience, she said Thursday in an interview.

He traveled 1,200 km (750 miles) from their home in Chillan, in southern Chile, to the mine. The decision about whether to pursue a lawsuit will be up to him, she said.

He'll face that option soon: Health Minister Jaime Mañalich told reporters today that the first miner may be freed as early as Tuesday.

IN PICTURES: Chile mine collapse

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