Rescue efforts for the 33 miners trapped 700 meters (1/2 mile) underground for 17 days in Copiapó, Chile paid off today. A drill with a 20-cm (8-inch) bit aiming for the workers’ refuge point popped through to a cavity. It was unclear whether it was another false hope — the last time a drill hit a cavern, it turned out to be full of rubble with no sign of life. The workers stopped the drill and banged on it. Soon enough they heard what sounded like people banging back at them. The voices of reason cautioned that the sounds could have been any number of things, but the drillers were convinced it was the miners. Ehey pulled out the drill bit so as to send down a camera and the first batch of relief — water, food, medicine. The drillbit came back with a baggie glued onto it, and inside the baggie a note: “Estamos bien en el refugio los 33.” That is, “We’re fine in the refuge the 33.”
At first I thought this was a pretty weird note — why do they say “the 33”? How do they know they are the only people trapped? But whatever. President Sebastian Piñera flew in to show the note to the press and gave a lovely speech that credited the workers for their efforts, rather than thanking God, and said, “All of Chile is crying with happiness and emotion.” The camera went down, and there were the workers, talking to it.
I hope people can now step back and look at this as more than an individual tragedy. It is a symptom of a lot of systems gone terribly wrong. There were many reasons why this situation should never have taken place. Among the allegations made in the press in the past two weeks, none of which I have independently verified:
-The company was fined for dumping mine tailings in a river, but never paid the fine.
-The company is behind on its taxes and owes money to a state copper company.
-The mine was closed for safety violations in 2008, and then reopened without proper procedures being followed.
-The mine didn’t have a secure escape route.
–Workers didn’t have adequate bathrooms.
I mean, really. This last one is actually the kind of thing I think is exactly what regulators should watch for. Mine owners so cheap that they can’t be bothered to provide portapotties and handwashing stations are probably cutting corners elsewhere, in the more expensive and important areas.
The next step in the rescue is to aim a big drill at the workers’ refuge and open a hole big enough for an evacuation. This will take months. The workers, talking to camera, said that’s fine.
The next step for the country? Inspectors should to be sent to every mine now and then. Worker and neighbor complaints should be investigated. Companies need to have insurance. Environmental fines should be enforced. Companies that are behind on taxes should lose mining rights. We’ll see if Piñera can follow up his class act today with actions that ensure the miners’ nightmare isn’t in vain.