As hopes for China miners fade, Chile mine rescue comparison lingers

Rescuers are stepping up frantic efforts to save 11 China miners still believed to be trapped by a deadly gas blast on Saturday.

Ken Teh/AP
A girl grieves in a van near the state-run Pingyu Coal & Electric Co. Ltd. mine in Yuzhou, China, on Sunday. Dozens of anxious relatives of miners trapped underground by an explosion gathered outside the site Sunday.

As Chile revels in last week's butter-smooth rescue of 33 miners trapped more than 2,000 feet underground for more than two months – a drama that rewarded an intrigued world with the happiest of endings – rescue efforts at a mine accident in China aren't going as well.

Rescuers are stepping up frantic efforts to save 11 miners still believed to be trapped by a gas explosion on Saturday. But even as relatives and friends kept a vigil, hopes were fading.

Five more bodies were found Sunday, bringing the death toll to 26, and Du Bo, deputy chief of the rescue headquarters, made no efforts to sugarcoat the situation.

"Based on past experience, the remaining 11 miners could be buried in coal dust, so the survival chances are frail," Mr. Du told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The tragedy in China is just one of dozens of fatal mining accidents in the country each year. But this one is garnering the world's attention in the wake of the Chilean saga, because it provides such a stark contrast in the way the two countries handle mining safety issues.

Chile's success

Chile, a standout economic performer in Latin America and the region's first member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is the world's top producer of copper. As such, the state-owned mining firm CODELCO has poured resources into technological advancements, and in recent decades, courted cooperation and investment from the world's most advanced companies.

This has meant that the world's best drilling and safety equipment is found in operation in Chile.

For instance, there are only five Strata 950 drilling machines in the world, and one happened to be at another copper mine less than 50 miles away from the San Jose mine where the 33 Chile miners were trapped, writes Monitor staffer Stephen Kurczy. That Strata 950 was used to bore the escape tunnel that made it possible for the miners to be brought to safety.

RELATED: 5 reasons the Chile mine rescue was so successful

“Right now the country of Chile is really at the forefront at developing a lot of mining and mineral processing technology, and they are very open and actively seeking input form all sources with a reasonable interest in improving their mining practices,” says Michael Nelson, chair of the mining engineering department at the University of Utah.

China's failure

The same cannot be said of China, the world's most dangerous nation for mining. More than 515 people have died this year in mining accidents. That's before Saturday.

Last year, 2,631 Chinese miners were killed in mining accidents, according to official figures.

"Mine disasters are so common in China they are reported only when the death toll is higher than a dozen," writes the Monitor's East Asia bureau chief, Peter Ford. "Even then the only detail generally released is the number of dead."

To its credit, though, China is trying to do something about the problem, reports Mr. Ford.

The death toll of the past few years "is a remarkable improvement on the situation in 2005, when nearly 6,000 men died, mostly in coal mines that caught fire, exploded, collapsed, or flooded," Ford writes.

The government launched a crackdown a year ago on illegal mines, closing 1,250 of them, in a bid to improve the industry’s safety record.

And in an eye-catching rule that came into force last week, Chinese coal mine managers and engineers are now obliged to go down the mines they supervise at least five times a month to give them a personal interest in ensuring safety levels.

The current tragedy, however, illustrates China's shortcomings.

The deadly blast that killed 26 miners and is thought to have trapped the remaining 11 reportedly occurred as workers drilled a hole to release pressure from a gas buildup. A similar explosion at the same mine killed 23 people two years ago. If proper safety precautions were indeed put in place, the execution was not good enough to prevent more deaths due to the same problem.

A mother of a missing 20-year-old miner who has worked in the mine for about a year told the Associated Press of her frustrations.

"This place is not even safe," she said. "They don't care about the workers' safety, they only care about their production."

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