Monday, August 30, 2010

The Chilean Mine Accident: Bad News and Good News

On August 5 of this year, the upper galleries of the San Jose gold and copper mine near the town of Copiapo in northern Chile collapsed. Thirty-three miners were more than 2,000 feet underground when the collapse occurred, and for more than two weeks no definite signs of life were detected. But on Aug. 22, a week ago Sunday, a drill pulled back out of a borehole drilled in an attempt to reach a rescue chamber near the bottom of the mine had a note attached to it, saying that all 33 miners were alive and reasonably well, considering. They had retreated to the chamber after the collapse and managed to make the three-day supply of food and water last 17 days. Intense efforts are continuing to drill a borehole wide enough to get the miners out to the surface, but estimates are that it will take several months. In the meantime, authorities are sending supplies of food and water and psychological aids such as telephone lines down the boreholes so the miners can talk with their families.

This has got to be one of the most dramatic mine accidents in recent memory, and one that potentially has a happy ending. If the miners don’t succumb to disease (their skin is already being affected by the hot, damp conditions) and manage to clear the thousands of tons of rubble the man-sized borehole will cause (there’s no other way to clear it), and don’t flip out and do something terrible like committing mass suicide, they could all survive to sign book contracts and do national speaking tours. That’s a long chain of “ifs,” but they obviously have enough self-discipline to have made it this far. None of the news reports I’ve seen mention religious faith, but my guess is that is playing a significant positive role too.

The bad news was that the mine collapsed in the first place. A helpful diagram on the Wikipedia page “Chile mining accident” shows why even one collapse in a gallery in this particular mine could trap the miners. I don’t know about you, but my mental image of mines is based on the old 1960s-encyclopedia pictures of coal mining as it was done in England and the eastern U. S. back then. Several vertical shafts with elevators were connected by horizontal galleries, like the floors in a high-rise office building. In this format, if one gallery collapsed you at least had a chance to turn around and run to one of the three or four vertical shafts.

The Chilean mine, by contrast, is a gold and copper mine run by a small private firm with a less-than-stellar safety record. It is in the form of a tall spiral, like an old-fashioned bedspring. The single gallery loops in and out of the valuable veins of ore, and meanwhile slopes gently downward at an incline that can be managed by either motorized vehicles or just miners walking. No vertical shafts (except for ventilation), no expensive elevators—and no way out if the single spiral gallery collapses anywhere along its length. And that is exactly what happened on Aug. 5, apparently in a couple of places. So part of the bad news (other than the collapse itself) is that this form of mine is very vulnerable to gallery collapse—there’s really no other way out, unless you count ventilation shafts (and apparently the only one large enough to get the miners out collapsed on Aug. 7).

Allowing for this possibility, the mine owners installed a safety chamber at the bottom of the spiral with enough food and water to last three days. I suppose the thought was that any collapse would be minor enough to be cleared in that length of time. Apparently, the cave-ins were so severe that much of the old spiral gallery is destroyed, hence the drilling attempts direct from the surface. Fortunately, the ventilation shaft leading from the safety chamber to the surface was undamaged, so suffocation was never a serious threat. Starvation and dehydration were, though. It will be fascinating to hear how the miners fared and how they organized themselves to survive what has to be one of the most harrowing situations imaginable—being trapped almost half a mile underground, not knowing when or if you would be rescued, and trying to survive on almost no provisions. The fact that they’ve done so is the good news, so far.

Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera (there are diacritical markings in his name that I can’t get this blog type to do) has properly made this disaster the focus of his attention, and personally issues important news about it. A large state-owned mine is in charge of the rescue efforts, including the human-size borehole. So it looks like the government of Chile responded promptly and is doing everything humanly possible to rescue the miners.

This event comes at a time when we are commemorating the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster in which our U. S. government did less than cover itself with glory, shall we say. The two disasters are very different: the mine is a single, specific technical challenge whose victims are already disciplined and familiar with their situation; while Katrina involved millions of average citizens, a huge geographic area, and a tangle of interlocking and conflicting political lines of authority that made an already bad situation worse. But still, we could learn some lessons from the Chilean situation.

For one thing, people who live in flood-prone areas ought to have some basic training and physical resources to be able to deal with floods if they come. An evacuation plan that was actually practiced and taught to the public, and some requirement for people to have emergency provisions wouldn’t be that difficult, and would have gone far to mitigate the terrible disaster that Katrina became.

And for another thing, government isn’t always the problem. There is a distressing tendency in some circles of U. S. politics today to view all government, at whatever level, and all government employees, as automatically corrupt, wasteful, and even malicious. While not denying that all three characteristics are to be found somewhere in government, I would point out the danger of lowered expectations. If good, selfless public servants constantly hear nothing but unwarranted criticism, they may figure “Well, everybody thinks I’m a no-good crook, so I might as well go ahead and be one.” If we’re not careful, we will get the government such an attitude deserves. And nobody will be better off in that case.

Sources: Besides the Wikipedia article mentioned, I used material from the following news items on Yahoo (from Associated Press) and ABC News, respectively: and

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