Elation in Chile obscures safety record of mines

The Globe and Mail

Relatives of a miner killed in an explosion in Yuzhou, China, grieve for their loss on Sunday. (Ken Teh/Associated Press)

While the world watched a miracle unfold in Chile last week, as 33 miners were raised from the depths of a copper-and-gold mine that had trapped them for 10 weeks, miners in China and Ecuador have since descended to their deaths, underscoring the ongoing perils and varying safety conditions of working underground.

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Chinese officials confirmed Sunday 26 miners had died and expressed dim hopes for 11 more who were missing after an explosion Saturday in a coal mine in Yuzhou, in the central province of Henan. Another 239 mine workers escaped the blast.

In Ecuador, meanwhile, four miners were trapped in a collapse Friday at the Casa Negra gold mine near Portovelo. Three of the four were found dead on Saturday, while efforts continued to locate the fourth.

While the danger level of mining varies with the type of mineral being extracted and the depth at which the work is done, the chances of surviving an accident and being rescued often depend on the extent to which safety standards have been enforced and how prepared mine workers are to respond in an emergency, said Ferri Hassani, a professor of mining engineering at Montreal's McGill University.

Economic forces also play a role, Dr. Hassani said, when demand for a mineral creates an inducement to cut corners, and when high commodity prices lure smaller, poorer-equipped operators into production, sometimes by reopening mines previously closed due to safety problems.

Obscured behind the elation of the Chile rescue is the fact that "the safety was not there, and the mine was shut in 2007" due to previous deaths, he said. When the price of copper soared, the mine was reopened.

"That is sad; they should not have done that," said Dr. Hassani, an expert in rock mechanics. "Now they've learned a lesson because everybody else has looked at it, but in Canada, that would not have been allowed."

While the San Jose Mine in Chile was equipped with a reinforced room where the miners were able to ride out their ordeal, it fell to a larger mining company to come to the rescue with the drilling equipment used to bore the escape shaft through which they were hoisted to the surface in a specially engineered capsule.

At the time of the accident, Chile had less than 20 inspectors for an industry that employs 170,000. In Ontario, where 22,000 miners work, there are 175 inspectors, Dr. Hassani said.

In China, where more than 2,600 miners died last year alone, "they want production, production, production" when it comes to coal, the key fuel of the country's surging economy, which poses the added danger of methane gas explosions when mined.

Chinese officials have been visiting Canada and Britain to gain expertise in mining safety, but "they are not using the latest technology that they use here, and that is one of the major reasons" for problems," Dr. Hassani said. "And basically the regulatory bodies are turning a blind eye, because they know they need the production."

While dangers remain no matter where the mine, stringent safety training and the use of seismic devices to "listen to the rock" have reduced fatalities in Canadian mines, the professor said, adding that other countries can learn from this expertise.

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