Chile miners to stay trapped a long time (updated)

Miners' families wait

Miners' families wait outside the San Jose mine near Copiapó, Chile. Image taken from La Tercera; click on it for a gallery of what it's like outside the mine as people wait.

Nobody knows yet whether the 33 trapped Chilean copper miners in Copiapó are alive or dead. Assuming they are alive, the government and state copper company Codelco have been running a rescue operation that involves drilling eight holes of eight inches (20 cm) apiece as close as possible to a refuge room 700 meters (2200 feet) below the surface of the desert where the miners are presumed to be hanging out.

It’s a horror to contemplate. It’s a good 33 degrees (upwards of 80 degrees F) down there. Darker than dark, as they only had 2 or 3 days worth of supplies in the refuge room and any lanterns they had are probably out of fuel or batteries by now. Oxygen is probably seeping through but the air is likely sticky and humid. The only water available is drainage along the floor of the filthy, contaminated mine. To arrive for a shift of work, they had to travel 75 minutes by vehicle down a long spiral ramp into the earth. It was the sole way out, and now it’s blocked.

Worst of all, the government has suspended efforts to reach the miners by road. The ramp is too unstable. The only hope right now is to reach the men with at least one of these robotically guided 8-inch drills and then feed down cameras, food, water, medicine and notes from loved ones. And even that effort has been slowed by geological surprises and the difficulty of guiding mining drills. Even if found alive, the guys will most likely have to stay there for months while the tunnel is reinforced or replaced. Personally I worry that the mining company may be so irresponsible that its maps may be wrong, and the drilling may miss completely. Underground mapping is difficult and these guys are classic corner-cutters — a Santiago paper noted yesterday that the family that owns the mine has almost $18 million in debts, including more than $100,000 owed to the state copper company and tax agency.

As I mentioned before, the president fired much of the hierarchy responsible for letting this mine reopen. But it turns out that the situation is deep and wide. There are just a handful of inspectors for the entire country’s mining industry, and each inspection takes days. Because of the boom-bust cycle of mining, there is always a shortage of inspectors when a boom starts, which is the same time that there is a wave of applications for small mines to open. Budget cuts during lean times mean that the inspectors get laid off when there is less work to do. It’s a tough call — keep inspectors on the job during the slow times, in a country where there is always more demand for public aid than there are government workers to help out? Or delay the reopening of mines during booms, causing more misery and unemployment in mining communities? Or do what they’ve been doing — let mines reopen without proper inspections? My guess is that the government will say it’s changing its ways, and will keep more inspectors on the job. But if copper drops to $2 a pound, all bets are off. This country is running on credit and it’s going to be hard to justify keeping workers on the job once they aren’t needed.

For now, spare some thoughts for those laboring like this to bring you your iphone, your electricity cables and the clean water in your copper plumbing.

Update Aug 16 midday: They now say there is a rock blocking the path. A 700,000-ton rock. That is 100 grams for every person in the world. Maybe if we all line up and take a half a pound of rock we can get the rescuers through. This situation is offering an excellent example of “clusterfuck.”

Update2 Aug 16 2pm: The first drill made it through to the mine. But it wasn’t the refuge. They sent down noisemakers, light and a TV camera to see where they were. It was a cavern full of debris.

3 thoughts on “Chile miners to stay trapped a long time (updated)

  1. NicaCat56

    This is truly a terrible, horrible disaster. My heart goes out to the family & friends of the victims. My feeling is that no one will survive this.

    1. Prof Cornelis Roelofse

      I am so glad i was obedient to place my comments on this website on 19 August. Indeed a miracle has happened. The first miners were hoisted to the surface after two and a half months underground. God has indeed worked sa miracle. Glory to Him through His Son.

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