Chilean mining minister responds to criticism over miners’ rescue

Following mounting criticism by labour unions and the public, Chile’s Mining Minister, Aurora Williams, spoke today about the government’s efforts to rescue two miners who have been trapped for six days in a flooded silver and gold mine in the southern Aysén region.

Talking to the local Radio Cooperativa, Williams said that 16 different organizations, 67 officials, and 21 government teams are involved in the operation. “The plan is to keep a continued line of work and that’s what we are doing. It’s not like I got there on the fifth day and that’s when we started taking action,” she said (in Spanish).

Williams highlighted that even though the focus right now is on freeing Enrique Ojeda and Jorge Sánchez, once they are out authorities will focus on investigating and penalizing any irregularities the find at the Delia mine, which is part of Canadian Mandalay Resources’ (TSX:MND) Cerro Bayo complex.

Last Friday, when the mine flooded following the collapse of a wall, the two miners were working in a gallery located some 1,300 metres from the entrance and 250 metres deep. Company officials believe they might have been able to seek refuge in an emergency shelter.

Since then, family members, local authorities and representatives of the mine’s union have been gathering every day outside the entrance to the mine, carrying Chilean flags. They keep criticizing the slowness of the rescue efforts and they are even announcing the possibility of holding a protest rally in the nearby city of Chile Chico.

But the Mining Minister justified the slow pace saying that it is a risky operation. “This accident caused the terrain to sink which, at the same time, allowed water from Laguna Verde to leak into the mine (…). On top of this, the soil that supports the mine is clayey and therefore sounding equipment has to be installed very carefully and in limited spaces,” she said.

Williams added that a 120-metre containment slope is also being built to stop more water from leaking into the pit.

Experts such as Felipe Matthews agree with the minister’s view regarding how dangerous this rescue mission is. Quoted by EFE, Matthews said that due to the instability of the terrain, this operation is more complex than the one carried out in 2010 to release 33 miners trapped at the San José mine in Atacama.

In a June 14 statement, Mandalay chief executive Mark Sander also explained that the presence of water and disturbed material “makes this effort extremely complicated.”

Sander added that the company is deploying its own resources, as well as resources coming from suppliers, contractors, other mining companies, and the government, to find and release Ojeda and Sánchez. “We are working diligently to keep the families, employees, local community, and the wider Chilean population informed of our efforts in a timely way,” he said.