North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Miners are Out!

Chilean President Pinera, in red, hugs one of the rescuers and each of the rescued miners

Reports are that over 1 billion people world wide watched the successful rescue of the 33 Chilean miners after being trapped 68 days underground - it is a rare, positive, global story. The Chilean President and his wife were on site for all of the miners as they surfaced, and the individual stories of each miner as they greeted friends and family were remarkable.

It appears this is also a great moment of Chilean unity and pride: a country of over 16 million, where the major ethnic group is Mestizo (mixed native American and European ancestry 66 percent); Europeans ancestry 25%, and native American 7%. Literacy is very high in Chile, and the majority of the people are Roman Catholic, as evidenced by many miners giving thanks to God for their "return" to life. One of the more concise and powerful statements came from the 2nd miner, Mario Sepulveda, brought to the surface, ‎"I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God."

Chilean pride and unity spilled out

The leader and shift foreman, Luis Urzua, came out last of the 33 men. He remained the leader in the situation, organizing exercise regimes, sleeping areas, bathroom areas, etc, carefully using the lights of several mining cars found below for simulating night and day after exploration of the areas they had access to, creating teams for work and cohesion, looking after those suffering from infections, and deciding, even, who got what to eat in those first 17 days alone before contact was made.

Luis Urzua, the leader of the trapped miners, was the last to surface

From one of thousands of media articles, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, upon the conclusion of the successful rescue said, "I want to say we did it the Chilean way - this means that we did it right, with unity, faith, hope, and I would like to thank everybody." He said the 33 miners showed loyalty and teamwork. And he said that he told Luis Urzua - the last of the 33 miners to be rescued, and the leader and shift foreman of the group - that he was a boss "that made us proud."

We could end the story here, the aftermath will still unfold, Chile may move forward in ways we don't know yet. We can be thankful. Alaba a Dios! But let's also remember the remarkable number of men who around the world make their livings in mines, quite unsung and realistically with humble aspirations. The more frequent outcome of mining disasters is much more somber, and the responsibility of mining companies and their owners questionable. Mr Pinera has already said the San Jose mine "will definitely never open again", and has vowed to punish anyone found guilty of wrongdoing. "Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility," he said.

From a scattering of news articles, the following can readily be gleaned. Chilean company Minera Esteban Primera, owner of the San Jose mine near has submitted a request to the comptroller general to start an investigation into alleged irregularities surrounding the reopening of the mine in 2008. In testimony soon after the cave-in in early August, the former head of national geology and mining service Sernageomin, Alejandro Vio, said the reopening of the mine in 2008 was not carried out in accordance with normal procedures. And the former labor office director, Maria Ester Feres, said that a previous attempt to close the mine in 2001 was unsuccessful after authorities came under pressure from the mining sector to keep it open.

The mining company's CEO's Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny say the firm is undergoing an internal audit of its assets and debt to determine whether it should declare bankruptcy. The mine, which is more than 100 years old, has a long history of accidents that have killed and seriously injured many miners in recent years.

Chilean mining regulators have also been criticized for being unprepared. The accident prompted PiƱera to fire the chief regulator, and revealed the shoddy realities of an industry with a mixed record on employee safety. The president has also introduced legislation to strengthen the regulator, increasing its budget across the mineral-rich high altitude Atacama desert. There are only 18 safety inspectors for all of Chile and only 3 or 4 for the Copiapo area where there are more than 800 mines. Small- and medium-sized mines have felt the fallout of the accident as the government moved rapidly to close dozens of tiny operations across the country over safety conditions.

Those are the immediate impacts on the larger mining dynamics in Chile, and one suspects would be repeated around the world (are companies held responsible, do they have financial reserves to address disasters or penalties, are there enough government inspectors, are improvements really made, etc.) But as to the human toll, in just the past 4 years, there have been multiple mining accident deaths in the Ukraine, West Virginia, Utah, and several incidents in China.

In Utah's coal country, a lot of painful memories were brought back among friends and family in the small mining town of Huntington while watching the rescue in Chile. Many residents were affected by the death of six miners and three rescuers back in August 2007. Then, six miners were buried and killed in a collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine. Ten days later, three others died during the rescue attempt. Crandall Canyon became the final resting place for six men and headstones mark the mine that is their tomb. Many in Huntington are overjoyed that the families in Chile could be reunited again.

The Sago Mine disaster was a coal mine explosion on January 2, 2006, in the Sago Mine in Sago, West Virginia, USA. The blast and ensuing aftermath trapped 13 miners for nearly two days with only one miner surviving.

However just 4 months later, 25 miners were killed in another West Virginia mine due to a methane explosion. The Upper Big Branch Mine, owned by Massey Energy was the scene.

The 2007 Zasyadko mine disaster was a mining accident that happened on November 18, 2007 at the Zasyadko coal mine in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. 101 miners were killed, the worst accident in Ukraine’s history, caused by a methane explosion located more than 3,000 ft below ground.

The Wangjialing mine in Shanxi province, China flooded after miners broke a wall into an abandoned shaft on March 28, 2010. However more than 100 Chinese miners were rescued alive after being trapped for over a week in flooded tunnels. As relatives celebrated the news, the men saved told of their horrific ordeal. Some ate sawdust and strapped themselves to the walls with their belts to avoid drowning while they slept.

Just three months later, however, at least 38 miners were killed in three separate accidents in China's coal mines. Twenty eight people died after an electrical cable caught fire inside the Xiaonangou mine in Shaanxi province. Police arrested the mine's owner. Eight miners died in an accident in Henan province, while two others were killed in Hunan.

Firemen deal with the electrical fire aftermath at the Xiaonangou mine.

The sudden surge in rescues in the Wangjialing case was a rare piece of good news for China's notoriously dangerous mining industry, the deadliest in the world. Accidents killed 2,631 coal miners in China in 2009, down from 6,995 deaths in 2002, the most dangerous year on record, according to official figures.

We know now that successful mine rescues are truly good and rare news. Bigger news would be that tough effective regulations and inspections were the norm, along with responsible and solid companies themselves.

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