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Mining for Reform

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

The safe, dramatic and successful rescue of all 33 Chilean miners this past weekend can be summed up in one word: miraculous. The images of the rescued miners, most of which are now iconic, ascending from the bowels of the Earth moved hearts across the globe. Your own blogger choked up for a minute. Or possibly even two. It was a breathtaking display of teamwork and determination between countries (the rescue plan was devised by a company from Kansas), companies (Oakley donated the sunglasses miners used to transition back to sea level) and average citizens. It was all a joyous sight to behold.

Mining: A deadly industry.

Now rack your brain. When was the last mining accident, before Chile, that you remember with a happy ending? The only one that comes to my mind is the Quecreek Rescue in 2002. In a triumphant display, nine miners were pulled to safety after being trapped for days underground in Pennsylvania. A happy ending; much like those brave men in Chile.

But let’s not try to fool anyone here. That was a long time ago. That was eight years ago.

In 2005, an earthquake triggered a gas explosion in a coalmine in Northern China killing over 200 miners. It was, at the time, the country’s worst mining disaster. In Siberia in 2007, over 70 lives were lost when a buildup of methane reached its breaking point and took the mine with it. In 2009, in Heilongjiang, again in Northern China, there was another mine explosion; it ended the lives of over 100 workers. This April, in West Virginia, 29 miners lost their lives to an accident in the Upper Big Branch mine. It was the worst mining disaster in the United States since the 1950s. In May, 90 Russians lost their lives in another mining calamity in Siberia. This list could go on and on and on…and on… well, you get the picture. The happy ending for the Chilean miners and their families is the exception; not the rule.

I raise these, admittedly morbid, incidents because they illustrate the lack of international mining oversight that is needed to safeguard the lives of workers that keep this world running. Too often facts about accidents are swept under the rug by governments. Too often corners are cut at the expense of safety to bolster productivity. Too often people are dying. The worst accidents, unsurprisingly, are happening in developing nations where oversight and regulation are the least stringent and populations, straddling impoverishment, are willing to work in life threatening situations. These are the places that need substantial reform swiftly.*

I am not naive when speaking to the subject of international implementation of norms. Global mining law would inevitably put restrictions on some free market activities and could be called an infringement on sovereignty by countries that are mostly mined by state run/affiliated entities. (I.e. China & Russia.) Understanding this, it will be near impossible (no, definitely impossibe) to set in place codified safety rules that are internationally enforceable. Maybe even a “pipe dream.” But we have to try. We owe it to all 33 Chilean miners. More importantly, we owe it to all of those who have lost their lives in the depths of the Earth.

Until then, though, we will still be hearing the same old disheartening stories. Like we did this week. This time from Ecuador and China.

*I’m not suggesting that the United States does not need urgent reform as well. I believe it does. But on the scale of need, these other locales take priority.