New Zealand Mining Disaster Sadly Typical

Today, a tragedy in New Zealand proved that Chile was an anomaly. 29 coal miners had been trapped in the South Island’s Greymouth Mine for five days when an underground explosion “extinguished hope of survival,” according to the Guardian:

Nothing had been heard from the 29 men since the initial explosion, from which two of their colleagues escaped, but many relatives had stayed hopeful, in part because of the good safety record of the country’s mining industry, with 181 deaths in 114 years before today. They were also buoyed by the rescue last month of 33 men from a Chilean copper mine after 69 days underground.

“Unfortunately I have to inform the public of New Zealand at 2.37pm today there was another massive explosion underground and based on that explosion no one would have survived,” said police superintendent Gary Knowles, in charge of the rescue operation at the Pike River mine. “We are now going into recovery mode. I had to break the news to the family and they were extremely distraught.”

The local mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, said the families had been cheered at news that robots carrying cameras had entered a narrow shaft drilled into the section of the mine believed to contain the missing men. Police then had to inform them of the second blast. “They were screaming at them. It was absolute despair,” said Kokshoorn, himself breaking down. “When the news came everyone just cracked up. People were openly weeping everywhere.”

After last month’s victorious rescue of Chilean copper miners, this news is very, very sad. And it comes from a country, and mining company, with a solid mining safety record. This is a reminder that mining is dangerous, even in the best of conditions.

This is another nudge for Americans to focus on better mining safety standards and corporate responsibility. Mining is one area of industry where I see government involvement as beneficial, given the state of the mining industry, current working conditions, and lobbyists’ power. Companies like Massey Energy get away with an awful lot, including fatalities, with minimal recourse. It would behoove us to pay attention to this issue before another tragedy hits our own soil. Which, eventually, it will.

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