Miraculously, 33 miners have emerged from the San Jose gold-copper mine in Chile, all alive and looking darn good given the fact that they’ve spent more than two months trapped a half mile underground. Americans love a good rescue story, and we’ve been riveted by this one.
But the rescue could have the unfortunate effect, in this country, of deepening a misplaced faith in technology to cure any ill and solve any problem. During the disastrous Deepwater Horizon mess, Americans seemed to think that the U.S. military had technology that could plug the well overnight. No such technology exists.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, the successful Chilean rescue was a mix of science and luck:
The most striking thing about Wednesday’s rescue of the trapped miners, after 70 days underground, was how easy it looked. The capsule that gave each man a trip to freedom seemed more like an off-kilter elevator than a part of history’s most audacious mining rescue.
Nothing about the San Jose rescue was easy, of course. Every aspect of the mission was planned and patiently managed, from initial efforts to locate survivors of the Aug. 5 cave-in to NASA’s input on the rescue capsule that brought them home. Even so, as the 33th man appeared—followed by the successful extraction of the six underground rescue workers—Chileans acknowledged the proceedings were blessed with an element of luck.
“It was 75% engineering and 25% a miracle,” said topographer Macarena Valdes.
Ms. Valdes was speaking of her own role in the rescue, as she augmented science with a touch of gut instinct to help guide rescuers’ probe drills into the rock, in hopes of finding survivors, in the days after the miners’ disappearance.
In this country, mining remains a dirty and dangerous business in which the risks are compounded by mine owners who simply don’t want to spend the extra money to make conditions safer. Many of them are willing to spend millions on political campaigns, however, to elect politicians who will allow them to run unsafe mines. The WaPo’s Dana Milbank wrote about Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey, in July:
If Don Blankenship had any sense of shame, he’d crawl into a mine and hide.
As CEO of Massey Energy, he has presided over a coal company that had thousands of violations in recent years, leading up to the April explosion that killed 29 of his miners. The company now faces a federal criminal investigation into what the government has called negligent and reckless practices.
But Blankenship must have no sense of shame, because he visited the National Press Club last week to complain about “knee-jerk political reactions” to mine deaths and to demand that the Obama administration lighten regulations on his dirty and dangerous company. “We need to let businesses function as businesses,” an indignant Blankenship proclaimed. “Corporate business is what built America, in my opinion, and we need to let it thrive by, in a sense, leaving it alone.”
The CEO was asked what he could have done to prevent the deadly explosion. “I probably should’ve sued MSHA” — that’s the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration — “rather than waiting” until now, he said. In the future, he added, “you’ll see not only coal companies but many companies resist the efforts of EPA and others that are impeding their ability to pursue their careers, or their happiness.”
The San Jose mine also had a poor safety record.
Along with its unhealthy balance sheet, the company has a pretty poor safety record. In 2007, executives were charged with involuntary manslaughter following the death of a miner, but settled with his family. The San Jose mine was closed, but it reopened in 2008 despite failing to comply with safety standards, according to Senator Baldo Prokurica, a member of the Senate mining committee.
Things may be about to change. The new Chilean president, Sebastian Pinera, is enjoying high ratings for his handling of the disaster so far. He has fired regulators and set up a commission to investigate the accident. At least 18 mines have been closed for safety violations. This is the right thing to do, but it will no doubt cause hardship for those miners thrown out of work. While the tab for the Deepwater Horizon spill will be picked up by BP, the cost of the San Jose rescue and any industry clean-up will be have to be met by the Chilean people.
I have no idea what the investigation will uncover. The San Jose disaster is unusual partly because of the number of people who survived. In 2008, the year the mine reopened, 43 Chilean miners died in accidents, yet there are only 18 inspectors for the country’s hundreds of mines.
Mining is a notoriously corrupt business. In many countries, backhanders are routinely proffered in exchange for mineral rights – and a blind eye turned to safety standards. And even when the political will seems to be there, darker forces often win out in the end.
As long as the Blankenships of the world get their way, there will be far more tragic deaths in mines than miraculous rescues.