October 15, 2010

All thirty-three Chilean miners have emerged into the daylight again. I am grateful to those who worked night and day to accomplish this. I cannot express the amount of respect I have for Luis Urzúa, the shift supervisor whose actions and leadership did so much to preserve the lives and health of those who worked under him. Good news is rare in the mining industry.

Though I hoped along with the rest of the world, I wrote nothing before this. There are so many things that could have gone wrong in an already unstable mine in an earthquake-prone country.

(At least it seems that decompression sickness was not among them. So high up is most of Chile that even 700 metres down still placed the trapped miners 120 metres above sea level: making even a fast ascent little different than the takeoff and flight of a twin-engine airplane. Yet ten decompression chambers were on hand during the final rescue, just in case.)

How I wish that I could have left this post there.

Yet we live in a world where the Chilean miners had to hire a lawyer even before they escaped the darkness, simply to watch out for their interests above ground. Documentaries, films, even a book is already in the works. It goes without saying that Chilean politicians took every advantage of the photo op. To some extent, they even staged it. (Not that Chilean politicians have any monopoly on this. Far from it.)

The mine in question has a poor safety record. No doubt its history and current conditions will also come to light -- again, for this has happened several times in the past, and always before the need to continue generating a profit has had the final word.

And again, Chile has no monopoly here. Even before the Deepwater Horizon oil well had been capped, long before standard practices in Gulf of Mexico drilling could be properly investigated, the oil companies had taken the United States government to court to overthrow the temporary moratorium on Gulf deep water drilling. Eleven oil workers died in that explosion, countless livelihoods were ruined: yet standard practices and emergency procedures are exactly the same now as they were then.

In Hungary, the initial flood of red mud had scarcely been stabilised before the Ajkai Timföldgyár alumina plant threatened to declare bankruptcy if it could not restart operations by the Monday following the accident. Never mind that nine people had died, drowned in corrosive sludge; and that half a dozen people are still missing. Never mind that the Marcal river is effectively dead, and that the Danube only escaped the worst by the skin of its teeth. Never mind that the same reservoir which had initially released a million cubic metres of red mud was still in imminent danger of complete collapse, and that no plan exists to prevent this or another such thing happening again.

But this time, it was not quite business as usual. On October 12, the Hungarian parliament decided that if the company could not run a safe and profitable operation under its own management, perhaps it was time for the country to take over.

And on October 13, that is exactly what happened.

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