Friday, October 15, 2010

After Rescuing the Chilean Miners or: A Promise Waiting to be Broken

The following is a deviation from the kind of posts usually associated with this blog.

Not so many hours ago, 33 Chilean miners were trapped in a cave. Now they are free. Bravo. Congratulations to "Los 33," as they've been dubbed. It's fantastic that everyone survived the 69-day ordeal--including the 17 days when no one outside the cave knew the men were alive. Their legend will grow, and they stand an excellent chance of reaping financial rewards for their endurance. Some will try to take advantage of them, and you could argue that some already have, with tragedy, hope, and greed making a hell of a combination.

But in the middle of the joy and harmony, there was one sour note.

"This mine will definitely never open again," President Sebastian Pinera said. It was a laudable statement, a promise to keep a replica of the incident from happening again.

It was also likely a lie.

Oh, the president might believe his words, but barring an apocalypse in the very near future that rids the earth of humans and mining capabilities, that mine will open again. How can it not?

Sure, the mine will be closed for now, and possibly for a very long time. However, the resources that were being mined are still down there, trapped in the earth. Sooner or later, someone is going to want to extract those frozen assets. If economic situations get dire enough, it may not even come down to outright profit. According to figures from NPR, mining accounts for 40 percent of the Chilean state's earnings. Those earnings just saw a dip, proportionate to however much the San Jose mine was making. Reliable mines are worth a lot of money to a lot of people, and the San Jose mine must be reliable enough. After all, it's been in operation for 125 years.

Notice that I said "reliable," not "safe." What is a safe mine anyway? "Safe" is relative, an arbitrary measurement on a sliding scale, signifying a compromise between a lack of danger and potential harm. Standards change, hopefully for the better, but sometimes for the worse. One country's excellent standards can be another country's bare minimum, if that. And when profit is at stake, gambles are made. All you need to do is look at the BP oil spill as Exhibit A: It is one of the largest industrial disasters in history, and yet deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico continues. In fact, the ban on deepwater drilling was lifted earlier than expected.

Who profits from the mine's closure? The men of Los 33 are out of jobs, but they're heroes, and their financial security is likely assured. Fellow miners who were lucky not to be trapped will also be jobless for a time, but hopefully their company's insurance will cover all that liability. The mining company is now out of a mine, but again, insurance should compensate for that--for now. The insurance company might lose the most in the short term, but they'll likely manage. Politically, President Pinera and his government will get a measure of good will because the recovery went smoothly, no lives were lost, and because the mine will close.

So, everyone wins or breaks even, right? Well... for now. Until money runs out, or times get tough, or until enough years have passed so that the thought of all those precious, unmined resources overwhelms the need to keep the mine closed. "We have improved standards and mining methods," some might say. "The president couldn't have foreseen our great need," others might say. "It's not as if any of the miners died," the callous might say, ignoring the average of 34 people who died every year in Chilean mines since the year 2000.

And the mine will re-open. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing. I'm saying that that for President Pinera to promise that outright, to use the word "never," is either naive or disingenuous. I'm not enough of a cynic to believe it's the latter, but pardon me if my BS-detector is acting up.

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