Government crackdown after mine collapse leaves other Chilean miners feeling left out in the cold

Thirty-three men who have been trapped underground since Aug. 5 were rescued on Oct. 13.

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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:25 PM

IN TIERRA AMARILLA, CHILE Aminer for 45 years, Fernando Rivadeneira has a knack for reading the geological signposts that can lead to the mother lode, tons of high-priced copper here in northern Chile.

More than 260 feet down a craggy, forbidding shaft that he himself punched into the Earth, Rivadeneira pointed a flashlight at a seam, a clue that made his eyes glitter.

"I have to go 200 meters, and I'll get where I need to go," he said, waving his hand toward a wall of rock he wanted to pulverize.

But these days, Rivadeneira and many of his fellow miners here in the Atacama Desert are going nowhere. The collapse of the San Jose Mine, which trapped 33 men for 69 days until their dramatic rescue Wednesday, led to a government crackdown on an industry that provides 40 percent of the state's revenue and employs 170,000 people.

New rules have closed dozens of mines or restricted operations until tunnels are shored up, escape shafts dug and ventilation improved. "This is all paralyzed now," said Rivadeneira, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather all mined here.

The mine collapse that riveted the world ended in triumph for Chile, touching off wild celebrations that were no more heartfelt than in gritty, blue-collar towns like Tierra Amarilla, where miners make their homes.

But the accident at San Jose not only exposed a checkered safety record at the mine. It also highlighted the inherent perils of mining, no matter how developed Chile has become, and the government's questionable effort at oversight.

President Sebastian Pinera's government fired top regulators, moved to overhaul safety regulations and boosted the budget for the mine safety bureau, which had only three inspectors to oversee hundreds of mines in the mineral-rich Atacama.

"The lesson of the San Jose Mine will never be forgotten," Pinera said Thursday, moments before he met with the 33 miners at the regional hospital in Copiapo, near the mine.

Tough regulations

Many miners, and the associations that represent them, note that mining accidents and fatalities have dropped off in Chile, which has some of the toughest regulations in the region. The rate of workplace deaths is higher in transportation, agriculture and construction, according to a 2009 government report on workplace accidents.

"We have a sixth of the accidents and a fourth of the fatalities that we had in the '70s and '80s," said Ivan Cerda, a director of the National Mining Society, which represents mine owners. "The fact that this accident happened is nothing normal in Chile. It is really the exception."

Still, 31 miners have died this year, and government regulators acknowledge that only a tiny fraction of mining operations are ever inspected.

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