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Poor safety standards led to Chilean mine disaster

As drama surrounding 33 trapped miners unfolds, lawsuits begin

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SANTIAGO, Chile — When the dust settled several hours after the mine caved in on them, the 33 miners began climbing the emergency ladder in a ventilation shaft that would lead them to the surface 2,300 feet above. But they only got a third of the way.

The mine owners had never bothered to finish the ladder to the top.

In their first remote phone contact with government officials above ground 18 days after getting trapped in the San Jose mine in the Atacama Desert, the miners told them that the emergency ladder, which every mine in Chile is supposed to have, did not exist.

"That evacuation exit was clear for 48 hours after the accident, and the miners could have gotten out if the ladder had been fully in place," said an upset Laurence Golborne, the country's mining minister, to the media after speaking with the shift leader Luis Urzua inside the mine.

The owners of the San Esteban Mining Company that controls the mine said that it was thanks to their safety regulations that the miners were found alive and well. But this outraged the workers' families and worsened their public image. Not even the refuge at the bottom of the mine, where the miners were presumed to be while rescue workers drilled into the solid rock for two weeks in an effort to reach them, was a safe haven.

On Thursday, a small camera was lowered down the grapefruit-sized duct that has been piping messages, water, food and supplies to the miners. With one miner filming and another illuminating the inside of the mine with the beam of his safety helmet, the miners showed their living conditions and took turns greeting their loved ones.

"This is the famous refuge," said miner Mario Sepulveda in the video, as he pointed to the shabby sign with "Refuge" stamped on it. "It was supposed to be in conditions to shelter us, but when we got here, the energy was cut off and there was no ventilation," he said bitterly.

It was an accident waiting to happen. And after it happened, the medium-sized gold and copper mine, 500 miles north of Santiago, became the epitome of unsafe mining practices. Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny, owners of the San Esteban Mining Company, have been demonized by the public as an example of the ultimate disregard for human life.

Miner unions had continuously accused the San Jose mine for its faulty safety measures, but the company attracts workers with higher than average salaries and benefits. In 2004, miner Pedro Gonzalez died after a cave in. In 2006, a truck driver in the mine, Fernando Contreras, was also killed in an accident. That same year 182 workers were injured, 56 of them seriously, according to Vincenot Tobar, a risk management expert who worked for the company until late last year.

Bohn and Kemeny were charged with involuntary manslaughter for Contreras' death, but the case was dropped in 2008 after they agreed to pay the family some $170,000 in compensation.

In January 2007, a geologist assistant, Manuel Villagran, died in the San Jose mine after a rock explosion, and Sernageomin, the government body responsible for supervising mining safety standards, ordered the mine closed.

However, less than a year later the San Jose mine was back in operations, even though it had not complied with the basic safety measures ordered by Sernageomin. One of those measures was supposed to be completing the evacuation ladder. Less than two months ago, another miner, Gino Cortes, suffered the amputation of his leg in another avoidable accident.

The latest dramatic accident in the 120-year-old mine has again turned the spotlight on mining safety and the need for stricter supervision in a country that is reputed to be the world's top copper producer. It is considered the second worst major accident in modern mining history since 1945, when 355 workers suffocated in the El Teniente mine, then owned by the Braden Copper Company.

The government, meanwhile, is riding high on its success in finding the miners on Aug. 22, all alive and in fairly good condition. From the anonymity of a former CEO, Golborne has leaped to stardom, signing autographs and having his picture taken with cheering supporters on the street.

In carefully crafted media appearances, President Sebastian Pinera, a former businessman, has emerged as a leader willing to take on corporate irresponsibility, vowing to overhaul labor safety regulations and bring to justice those responsible for the accident, whether they are part of the company or part of the government.

"This has left Pinera in a stronger political position and the challenge now is to sustain public interest and attention during the time it takes to rescue the miners in order to maintain the political leverage he has now achieved," said Robert Funk, academic vice director of the University of Chile's Institute of Public Affairs.

A few days after the accident, Pinera dismissed the national director of Sernageomin, Alejandro Vio, the Atacama regional director of the agency, Rodolfo Diaz, and another top agency official.

More recently, Pinera announced the creation of a work safety commission in charge of drafting a report over the next three months on safety conditions in mining, agriculture and industry.

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This week, the Minister of Mining announced major surgery to Sernageomin, "so that accidents like the San Jose mine will never happen again." The plan includes creating a Superintendence of Mining, doubling its annual budget and increasing the number of its inspectors from the current 18 to 45.

But laws and regulations aren't the problem, says mining engineer Agustin Holgado.

"Chile has one of the strictest mining safety standards in the world, especially in large mining operations, with specific codes and its own regulatory agency," he said. "The problem is enforcement, especially in medium to small-size mines. I have been manager of mines the size of San Jose and I've never seen workers exposed to such extreme risk as in that mine."

Five days after the mine collapsed, the congressional mining commission opened an investigation into the causes of the accident, mining safety and enforcement. Former and current Sernageomin officials have been called to testify, as have the owners of the company, who have not shown up so far.

In Atacama, the regional public prosecutor's office is investigating the company owners for their responsibility in Gino Cortes' accident and the cave in on Aug. 5. Both owners have gone through lengthy interrogations.

This week, two lawsuits were filed on behalf of the miners' families, both against the company owners and government officials responsible for allowing the mine to operate in unsafe conditions. Another lawsuit was filed against the company for breach of legal duty in order to prevent it from transferring its assets to third parties.

Another parallel drama is playing out among the more than 100 San Jose miners who have suddenly found themselves without work. The company paid the August salaries to its 140 workers — including the families of the 33 — but announced that it didn't have enough funds to cover September and beyond.

Bohn, one of the owners, said in a radio interview that they would ask the government for help to cover the payments. His attorney, Hernan Tuane, said that if the company was flooded with lawsuits, they might have to file for bankruptcy.

And that was the last straw.

"What they are saying is incredible," said Golborne, the mining minister. "The main responsibility for all of this is theirs. They can forget that the government will help a company that has behaved in such a manner."

In fact, the government brought the case to the State Defense Council, an autonomous body in charge of protecting state assets, to ensure the San Esteban Mining Company pays back the enormous amount of resources the government has and will spend on rescue efforts.

Meanwhile, Sernageomin, which claims that it doesn't have the resources or personnel to adequately supervise all the mines in Chile, has closed 18 small- and medium-sized mines in the Atacama region since the accident. Most of the infractions are for unsafe working conditions, including lack of ventilation shafts, alternative evacuation exits and emergency shelters.

"There is a before and an after to the mine cave in. Now, we are all in the eye of the hurricane," Jorge Pavlevic, the president of the Mining Association of Taltal, told a local paper. 

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Trapped miners are seen underground in a copper and gold mine at Copiapo, 450 miles north of Santiago, in this frame grab taken Aug. 29.

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