Chilean mine safety under scrutiny

Chile's president says the mine that trapped 33 workers will close forever, and vows to create safer conditions for those in the country's biggest industry.

Chile's president says the mine that trapped 33 workers will close forever, and is vowing to create safer conditions for those in the country's biggest industry.

Officials at the copper and gold mine that partially collapsed in August, stranding the miners, will be forced to answer why it was allowed to operate at all. President Sebastian Pinera seemed unequivocal after Wednesday's rescue about the fate of the San Jose mine.

"This mine will definitely never open again," he said after a dizzying day in which the miners were pulled to safety through over 600 metres of rock in a narrow escape chute.

Replay chat:

Mental health expert answers your questions on what's next for the 33 men.

Pinera also said the conditions that allowed the accident "will not go unpunished. Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility."

Pinera said the rescue would end up costing "somewhere between $10 [million] and $20 million," a third covered by private donations with the rest coming from state-owned Codelco — the country's largest copper mining company — and the government itself.

A perfect rescue

Initially, officials said it might be December before the men could get out. Once the drill that opened the escape shaft pierced the men's subterranean prison, they estimated it would take 36 to 48 hours to get everyone out.

The actual time: 22 hours, 39 minutes.

The only real glitch was indeed minor — it became a bit difficult to open and close the escape capsule's door as the day wore on, said Laurence Golborne, Chile's mining minister.

Rescue worker Manuel Gonzalez was the last person to get back to the surface, leaving behind an empty, wrecked mine early Thursday morning.

Gonzalez waited alone in the mine 26 minutes while the escape capsule went up and came back down for him. He spoke by phone with rescuers at the top, joking that he was praying the capsule showed up.

A video feed showed him gesture triumphantly, then bow before making an awkward climb into the capsule, drawing cries of "Careful! Careful!" from those at the surface. Then he strapped himself in and shut the door before disappearing up the shaft.

The Aug. 5 collapse brought the 125-year-old San Jose mine's checkered safety record into focus and put Chile's top industry — mining accounts for 40 per cent of the Chilean state's earnings — under close scrutiny. Many believe the collapse occurred because the mine was overworked and violated safety codes.

The families of 27 of the 33 rescued miners have sued its owners for negligence and compensatory damages.

Also suing the San Esteban company is Gino Cortez, a 40-year-old miner who lost his left leg from the knee down a month before the latest accident as he was leaving the mine after his shift and a rock fell on him. He contends he was hurt because the mine was short on the metallic screens that protect miners from such collapses.

Pinera said in the coming days he will be offering a new proposal for better protecting Chilean workers.

Pinera said he would triple the budget of mine safety agency Sernageomin, whose top regulators he fired after the collapse. He also created a commission to investigate the accident and recommend changes. 

Some action was swift: the agency shut down at least 18 small mines for safety violations.

"The mine has been proven dangerous, but what's worse are the mine owners who don't offer any protection to men who work in mining," said Patricio Aguilar, 60, of nearby Copiapo, during celebrations of the meticulously executed rescue.

Despite advances in technology, mining remains a dangerous profession in the smaller mines in northern Chile, which employ about 10,000 people.

Since 2000, about 34 people have died every year on average in mining accidents in Chile — with a high of 43 in 2008, according to Sernageomin data.

Mining industry experts say while the Chile accident showed how dangerous some mining operations are, the rescue showed how safe the industry can be.

"All mining is now recognized as the safest heavy industry, certainly in Canada if not North America," Dan Jepsen, formerly with B.C.'s mining exploration association, told CBC News on Wednesday.

He said the Chilean miners knew how to get to a safe zone to survive and mining companies from around the world — including a Canadian firm — teamed up to design a plan to get them out.

Jepsen said most mining companies have safety records worth boasting about.

Mining, he said, has "an absolutely stellar track record of health and safety, and I think we can be very proud of that.

There has been such an effort from the mineral and mining industry to address health and safety issues."