SANTIAGO – A single entrance and exit route, a ventilation chimney with no emergency ladder, a long-spreading crack in the rock, poor regulatory oversight and owners more interested in capitalizing on a raw-material “boom” than in ensuring mine safety.
That combination of factors provoked the Aug. 5, 2010, collapse of the San Jose gold and copper mine in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert and made it impossible for 33 miners stranded some 700 meters (2,300 feet) underground to make their way to the surface on their own.
They were eventually lifted out one-by-one after a harrowing 69-day ordeal thanks to a complex operation that captured the world’s attention and became a source of national pride.
“The bosses only cared about output. They used cameras to control us, and if we were late getting a truck out they’d call from Santiago to see what was happening,” one of the rescued miners, Jorge Galleguillos, told EFE.
Standing at the mouth of the narrow tunnel through which he was carried to safety in a steel capsule a decade ago, Galleguillos recalled that the mine was known as the “San Jose Slaughterhouse” and that it had been closed on at least two occasions following the deaths of a pair of workers in 2004 and 2007.
“The mine was constantly creaking. It was constantly warning us.”
San Esteban Primera S.A., the mine’s owner, was absolved of wrongdoing for the cave-in even though a legislative investigation showed evidence of flagrant negligence.
Even so, the accident marked a turning point in terms of the safety standards of Chile’s powerful mining industry, whose exports over the past decade total roughly $42 billion, according to state copper agency Cochilco.
“Safety entails costs, and there are a lot of companies that continue to turn a blind eye, that make commitments on paper but don’t (take real action) on the ground. That said, I think our accident served to raise awareness,” another of the 33 survivors, Omar Reygadas, told EFE.
Chile accounts for 28 percent of global copper output and is the world’s leading producer of the red metal, which is widely used in electrical wiring.
A total of 5.7 million tons of copper were produced in 2019 in Chile, where mine operators include multinationals such as BHP, Anglo American, Codelco and Antofagasta Minerals as well as a slew of small- and medium-sized companies.
The cave-in occurred amid a commodities “supercycle” when China was growing at a dizzying pace and hungry for raw materials.
Consulting firm Plusmining told EFE that the boom brought new players to the industry and that regulatory authorities’ oversight capabilities were stretched too thin.
“The accident marked a before and after in terms of prevention and oversight. Mining today is one of the safest activities, and this is reflected in the sustained reduction in the accident rate,” Chilean Mining Minister Baldo Prokurica told EFE.
The statistics back up that assertion.
In 2010, the fatality rate in Chilean mines stood at 0.12 deaths per 1 million hours worked (a total of 45 deaths), while last year that rate was 0.03 (with 14 deaths), or around a 75 percent reduction.
According to the International Council on Mining and Metals, Chile (0.009) ranked behind only Australia (0.004) in 2019 in terms of ICMM company member fatality frequency rate (calculated per 1 million hours worked).
In terms of oversight, the National Geology and Mining Service (Sernageomin) had just 14 supervisors and conducted around 2,400 inspections annually 10 years ago, while last year those numbers climbed to 60 and 10,500, respectively.
While Chile’s large mining companies employ state-of-the-art technology and operate under the highest safety standards, experts and unions alike say the country’s Achilles’ heel continues to be small mining outfits.
The most recent fatal accident occurred just two weeks ago when a pair of workers died after an explosion at a mine located some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Santiago.
“Small mining firms and artisanal mines have very limited financial capacity, and the role of the state agencies is key,” Plusmining said.
But according to Patricio Elgueta, president of Chile’s Federation of Copper Workers, the solution lies not in carrying out more inspections but in ratifying the International Labour Organization’s Convention 176 on safety and health in mines.
“It’s incredible that Chile hasn’t (ratified) it yet. The convention would help us have a national mine safety policy. Right now we’re vulnerable to a repeat of what happened at the San Jose” mine, he told EFE.
The vast majority of the 33 rescued miners have not returned to work in that industry and get by on a monthly pension of around 400,000 pesos ($520), or half of what they earned as mine employees.
Claudio Yañez, another of the survivors of the 2010 cave-in, said he believes mine owners have not offered him formal work since the accident for fear he will denounce poor working conditions.
Even so, the 44-year-old says he would go back underground and that the idea of zero risk is a pipe dream.
“Mining is like fishing. Fishermen go to sea, but they don’t know if they’ll come back. It’s the price of defying nature,” Yañez said.