Chile Mine Collapse Highlights Safety Risks

The rescue of 33 men stuck half a mile underground for more than two months highlighted the risks taken by miners in Chile. NPR's Juan Forero goes into a mine to explore what is and isn't being done to protect those who dig for precious ore.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

In Chile, the rescue of 33 miners last week, trapped deep beneath the Earth for more than two months, was a thrilling success. But the collapse of the San Jose Mine also exposed a failure of government inspections and the dangers of mining in Chile.

In a country built on mining, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of unregulated mines.

NPR's Juan Forero takes us to one of them in Inca De Oro.

JUAN FORERO: An old shaft, punched into the ground a century ago, leads to oblivion.

(Soundbite of falling rocks)

FORERO: Dislodged rocks fall for what seems like forever. Eduardo Gonzalez says it's 260 feet down. At this mine, he knows all about the perils.

(Soundbite of hammering)

FORERO: With pick and hammer, he pounds at a loose rock, deep in the mine.

Mr. EDUARDO GONZALEZ (Miner): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He says the vein running here is the telltale sign of gold.

Mr. GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He soon has a 10-pound rock, laced with tiny, glittering speckles.

Mr. GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Mining hasn't been bad for me, he says. If it had, I would have found another life.

Mining made Chile and 170,000 work its mines. It's tough, dirty, dangerous work. And until recently, those miners were invisible. Then came the San Jose collapse, and a seamless rescue operation that captivated a global television audience.

Gonzalez says he, too, was ecstatic. But he says it wouldn't have been that way for him, had his mine collapsed.

Mr. GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: It would get complicated here in this mine, he says, no one would ever know if the walls caved in. That's because Gonzalez works the whole mine by himself. The tools of the trade are a pickaxe, a pneumatic drill, picks, spikes, shovels and an old winch that isn't working. He's a wildcatter, taking over an old mine whose riches are mostly gone.

This mountain is honeycombed with such mines, many over a century old.

Mr. GONZALES: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: It takes patience, he says. Without it, you can't mine for gold. He adds that you have to have a little luck. On a recent day, Gonzalez takes me into the mine. To me, this is mining like it was done before the 20th century; no big tunnels, no wooden timbers to hold up countless tons of rock. You go down on rickety wooden ladders through little more than a craggy hole going straight down, holes only a yard or so wide.

Mr. GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He says we're going down about 12 meters. That's about 36 feet, 36, 40 feet down to the first level, lower level. We're already down about 100, 200 feet into the mine. We lower ourselves by rope and walk along narrow wooden boards over shafts that drop into darkness.

Now we're in a shaft where he has his cables. This is where he lowers machinery and where he lifts up some of the rocks that he's mined.

Here, wind whipping through shafts keeps it cool.

Mr. GONZALEZ: Hello.

FORERO: Gonzalez yells into one shaft to give a sense of just how deep it goes.

Mr. GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Gonzalez says he's never been inspected and safety is up to him. The work is backbreaking, but Gonzalez says it's worth it. He's happy with four ounces of gold for every 130 pounds of rock he manages to pull out of the mine. In a good month, he can earn $1,000. To get at a few precious particles, though, he has to pulverize the rocks, then scrape them.

(Soundbite of scraping rocks)

FORERO: He takes the dust and carefully sweeps it into a wooden sifter.

(Soundbite of sifting)

FORERO: Then it appears.

Mr. GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: There's the gold, he says, the little bright speckles. And then Gonzalez says he's headed back to the mine for more.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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