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Los 33 – Lost Opportunity

A week following the rescue of Los 33, thirty-seven miners were caught in an underground gas explosion at the Pingyu No 4 coal mine owned by The Pingyu Coal and Electric Co at Yuhou in Henan, China. No BBC TV cameras went to the scene, there was no visit from the Chinese President and no one came out alive.

The marked contrast between the attention paid to the heroic feats of engineering and teamwork which led to the Chilean rescue and lack of interest in the Chinese tragedy suggests that we have a long way to go before safety standards for all miners are improved.

While, therefore, the celebration for those saved in Chile should be unbounded, any plaudits for the mining industry as a whole should be restrained.

Amid the nail-biting human side of the Chilean rescue, it was unfortunate that journalists did not focus more on the wider record of the mining industry, the preventability of accidents and the pressures placed on engineers, geologists and miners by finance people sitting in plush offices far from operations. In a year which had seen the BP event, and was about to see Ajka, it was a sad omission.

Improving mining standards is not just about the men underground, it is about what happens on the surface too – air pollution caused by fugitive emissions, water pollution caused by toxic effluent, ruined roads caused by ore trucks, communities blighted by slag heaps, routine poverty, lack of treatment of the injured, lack of provision for the retired. It is about how mining houses respect those who bring wealth to the surface. In some parts of the world the issues are also about militias fighting over resources and about the effect on indigenous communities of disease, alcoholism and prostitution that follow the mining road-show.

As President Pinera said, ‘Good news is still news’; and one piece of good news that happened to come out in the last few weeks, almost as good as the rescue of Los 33, was the refusal by India’s Government to give FTSE-100 mining house, Vedanta, permission to mine bauxite in Orissa on a site worshipped by tribal people for millennia and a place of outstanding natural beauty. It was a decision that went against all conventional expectation and it gave hope to the weak and voiceless against the strong, monied and powerful.

The story largely missing from hours of TV and Radio time focused on Los 33 was the one about mining house accountability more generally, where mining is carried out in developing countries often by foreign owned mining houses who are richer in money and power than the sovereign governments of the countries in which they mine. We may take here any number of companies who are currently operating in developing countries to bring you the metals for your mobile phones, hip-joints and light switches, auto-catalysts, energy efficient batteries, solar panels, medical equipment, aircraft engine turbine blades – mining houses who show one face on the London Stock Exchange and quite another in the country in which they mine.

The Los 33 event was built, but unfortunately not used, to be a miner’s lamp on this subject. It was meant to shine a beam of light into the dark recesses of mining house practice and shame them into better behaviour while the world, for a few moments, was awake and watching.

A number of small useful facts did emerge amid the voyeuristic coverage. The one I liked most was that, apparently, in South Africa, since black empowerment, the death of a miner is followed by one and a half day’s official mourning. With the loss of production entailed, this act had apparently had more effect on improving mine safety standards than a whole mine-shaft of HSE legislation. Miners mourning was going to lose mining companies production. The South African gold mines are apparently now some of the safest in the world.

In other parts, at accident time, miners are just routinely threatened with the sack or closure if they do not get back to work or, in China, just shot if their demonstrations get too annoying. In Zambia this month 11 miners protesting about conditions (and the fact that they hadn’t been paid) at the Collum Coal mine in South Sinazongwe were shot by Chinese managers who presumably thought it was good manners to do the same abroad as at home.

Despite all this, a mining job is more prized the poorer the country is. This is a good argument of course for keeping the mined country poor; a policy which mining houses no doubt support. In Zambia, I have heard a teacher ruefully say that the boast of local miners is that ‘we are worth two teachers’. The threatened loss of this slight social advantage is enough to maintain a docile workforce. The combination of some meagre benefits such as hospital care restricted for miners, and better pay than the average in the local community, also leads to a primitive class system, setting the miner above the rest of his fellow men and yet keeping the miner tied to the hand that feeds it.
Threats of mine closures, owing to rumoured low prices quoted on far off commodities exchanges, are taken at face value. So much of the mine worker’s world is controlled from outside, why should these facts not be true also? The miner is unlikely to be told by the mining house that the copper he is digging out might be costing less than $2000 per mt while the London Metal Exchange is trading above $8000 per mt. The mine worker’s lack of economic sophistication allows him to be brow-beaten and, meantime, he knows how expendible he is and that all too many of his fellow citizens would be only too keen to take his place

How can any of this change? For this, the Los 33 story was sent to us. To show with forensic clarity that the reason the miners were 700 metres underground in the first place was that the gold price had caused the financial people to cut corners and open a condemned mine in haste. Just as BP was drilling for oil in the Gulf in haste. Just as MAL Aluminium in Hungary only days after the accident was asking to continue to produce alumina. Pressure, pressure, pressure. A pressure languid consumers demand, but which results in a miner’s life being risked. What for? Another ton of earth. Another barrel of oil.

Improving mining conditions and removing pollution from the surface, you might ask, is all very well but can it really be done? Well, yes, it can and I suggest anyone with an interest in these matters takes a visit to Wych Farm in the UK. ‘Wych where?’. Exactly – not a farm but an oil well, nestled below the New Forest and bucolic Hampshire coastline. You would not know it’s there. Below the seaside towns of Hampshire which look as if they just have been filmed for an episode of Midsomer Murders, oil is being pumped and not a sea-shell is out of place. That is what can be done in the UK. And it is what could be done anywhere where worker safety and mining communities are not sacrificed for profit. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Brazil, Ecuador, India, China, Russia, Kazakahstan.

But while no one sees, and no one looks, the inevitable will happen. In Hampshire the residents could see. They were middle class fundamentalists like me, educated, tax-paying, squeezed middle classes, who trundled out to their parish council and county council meetings, who wrote to their MPs and councilors and vicars and forced planning enquiries and won against the power of big money and big oil and thus managed to keep their green and pleasant land.

But in Zambia or in Zimbabwe where the voice is weak, where the person with the voice is hungry and unrepresented, what hope is there? There is only one way in which the mining houses will listen and it is not to the voices in the countries where they mine but to voices raised in legitimate concern here.

When the mining lamp is turned on them by the middle class English pensioner and shareholder who mentions such words as ‘governance’ or ‘climate change’, that is something to be feared! That is the beam of light that needs to be shone unflinchingly into the cold hard eyes of mining house CEOs like a laser for corrective eye surgery to mend their vision so that they actually see the effect of their decisions on people’s lives.

Pick up any newspaper and look at the list of mining and resource companies listed in the FTSE-100 – that is the place to shine the light. Here, where our press is strong, and the much be-laboured herbal-tea drinking educated middle classes care enough to put morals before money. Our weapon – the standards set by the UN, the WHO (World Health Organization) and ILO (Intl Labour Organization) – bodies who have published agreed world standards for air quality and water quality and, in the case of the ILO, drafted and ratified the Safety and Health in Mines Convention No 176. Our job – to highlight those companies who do not abide by them

This, sadly, is why the story of the Los 33 was a lost chance. When the roof caved in at San Jose what was needed was for the rocks to come down on bad practice. Look at any mining houses’ website and you will see the pious words written about their environmental and green credentials. It comforts the apathetic, I suppose, and we believe it because it is written. But ask yourself this next time you put the mobile phone to your ear – what child in the Congo dug those atoms from the ground? What soldier pointed the gun? How much radioactivity did the child accumulate in his bones? Was the child’s mother one of the 500 women raped and mutilated in the summer of 2010? Was the soldier pointing the gun a child soldier? What smuggler moved the goods to port? What port official was bribed to change the goods’ origins? Then ask yourself – what office in London, Frankfurt or Zug ordered this?

Anthony Lipmann
22.10.10 [There were 2631 deaths from mining accidents in China in 2009, a fall from 6995 in 2002.]