MAC: Mines and Communities

Safety problems remain in Mexican mines

Published by MAC on 2007-02-20

Safety problems remain in Mexican mines

By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press

20th February 2007

SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico — Using picks, shovels and even their hands, hundreds of coal miners have worked around the clock for a year to recover the bodies of 65 co-workers lost in an explosion. So far, frustrated searchers have only found two.

Just as frustrating, for some, is how little has been done to improve mine safety nationwide, despite an outcry over the tragedy.

The disaster at Pasta de Conchos mine has raised important questions about almost every aspect of mine operations in Mexico, from government oversight, to the integrity of the miners' union and the pressures miners are under to disregard built-in safety measures.

A special prosecutor has recommended criminal charges of negligent homicide against 11 mine officials and federal inspectors. The government has already charged the former leader of the miner's union with stealing $55 million from his members. Now, he is a fugitive.

Some miners doubt mine owners will ever adopt new safety measures despite the disaster at Pasta de Conchos, which is permanently closed. "That mine has no remedy because they never took precautions, and I doubt they will start now," said Ricardo Ramirez, 25, who survived the blast.

Nor can they understand the agonizing pace of recovering remains. Six months ago, Rolando Alcocer, whose 54-year-old brother was killed, moved to a tent outside the gates of the mine, about 85 miles southwest of the Texas border. Nearby is a makeshift altar where a glass case holds photos of the dead miners, surrounded by votive candles and plastic flowers.

"I want them to see that we have not forgotten and that we will not leave until they give us our relatives," Alcocer said.

There is still no official ruling on the cause of the Feb. 19, 2006, explosion. But investigators found problems with the ventilation system that cleared the mine of explosive methane gas. Some miners say gas detectors were routinely disabled by their co-workers to avoid shutdowns and protect the productivity bonuses they depended on to supplement their meager salaries.

Reforms in mining regulation did not come easily in the United States either — it was only last year, after deadly coal mining accidents at the Sago mine in West Virginia and the Darby mine in southeastern Kentucky that President Bush signed the first major overhaul of U.S. mine safety laws in three decades. The reforms required that miners, for example, be given more emergency oxygen and that rescue crews be in position to respond more quickly to accidents.

Although the Pasta de Conchos tragedy provoked outrage in Mexico, no concrete measures have been taken to improve miners' safety. Mexico's powerful trade unions have proved feeble advocates for improved safety.

In January, a coal miner was crushed to death and four others were injured after the collapse of a mine shaft in Nueva Rosita, a town near San Juan de Sabinas. The incident led to fresh demands by state officials for increased inspections.

So far, that has not happened. Only five inspectors are responsible for more than 100 coal mines in Coahuila state, where the Pasta de Conchos mine is located.

The company that owns Pasta de Conchos — Grupo Mexico SA de CV, a railroad and mining giant with operations in Mexico, Peru and the United States — insists the mine met all safety standards and denies that precautions were ignored. As for the cause, the company says they must first dig down to the original site of the blast before drawing conclusions.

The company paid each family of a dead miner a one-time sum of $75,000, and gives them weekly payments of about $350.

Only two bodies have been recovered, because the use of power tools could ignite pockets of seeping methane gas. Experts say it could be years before all the missing are found.

On Sunday, about 100 relatives and friends gathered in the cold and windy night for a vigil outside the Pasta de Conchos mine. The mourners prayed and lit candles and carried white balloons they planned to release at 2:15 a.m., the time of the explosion.

"I want my husband in a tomb where I can go pray and bring him flowers," said a sobbing Maria Aguilar, whose husband was killed in the blast.

Supporters of ousted union leader, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, said they will strike Monday to mark the anniversary of what Gomez has dubbed work-related homicide.

Gomez himself has been a divisive figure in the disaster: He faces both charges of fraud and corruption, and allegations that he was slow to respond after the explosion, enraging workers' families.

But thousands in the 250,000-member Mining and Metal workers union he represented went on strike in March after the federal government charged him with allegedly misappropriating $55 million paid to the union in a 1990 privatization of two copper mines. The government then certified a rival leader of the union.

Supporters of Gomez, who fled to Canada, say he is being persecuted for alleging a government cover up for Grupo Mexico's negligence.

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