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Really Deep Thoughts

17 October 2010

Lessons from the 2010 Copiapó mining accident

By now, everyone knows the story.  On August 5, 2010, the San José copper and gold mine near Copiapó, Chile, collapsed, stranding 33 miners about 2300 feet below the surface of the earth.  To give some sense of this, this is about the height that the two World Trade Center buildings stood, if stacked on top of each other.

For seventeen days the miners waited in the darkness, lit only by the lights of their helmets, not knowing if anyone knew they were alive, or if anyone was trying to find them.  At the same time, no one outside the mine knew if there was anyone alive to rescue.  Finally, on August 22, an exploratory drill punched through to the miners’ chamber.  They attached a note, previously prepared, stating “Estamos bien en el refugio los 33″, “We 33 in the shelter are well”, in English.

On October 9, an escape borehole reached the cavity where the miners were stranded.  On October 12, all 33 miners were successfully brought up to the Earth’s surface, while we all watched on our cable TVs.

This is a great feel-good story.  But I think there are a number of lessons that can be learned from this story beyond “don’t work in a copper mine.”  I’ll write about what I learned.  I’d like to hear what you learned or what you think about my “lessons”.

International Relations

After this accident happened, many nations came to the rescue.  Drill teams came from the United States, Canada, and Europe.  We spend a lot of time talking about the differences between countries.  And these exist.  But when we see real human beings in trouble, people gather together and recognize that the things we have in common outweigh the differences.  Most people are basically good.  Even most governments try to do good.  When we pool our resources, great things happen.  Like the miracle of these 33 lives being saved.  I’m not sure why we don’t pull together to help those like the refugees of Darfur or even the oppressed of North Korea, as two examples.  I think this is something we should look at.

Government Regulation

In this country, the US, at least, there is a cry from some corners against government regulation.  There has been a huge revolution, starting with the Reagan administration, for deregulation.  While I don’t agree with everything he did, I am a huge fan of Ronald Reagan.  Too much regulation is a bad thing.  But no regulation is a worse thing.

Chile does a lot of business in mining, and has a number of regulations regarding mining safety.  The San José  mine was actually shut down in 2007.  But it was allowed to reopen in 2008, even though it still hadn’t complied with Chilean safety regulations.  This points out a couple of things.  Some companies will try to obey every law whether it makes sense or not.  Without proper enforcement, these companies are placed at a competitive disadvantage by their compliance.  Other companies will ignore all regulations as long as they feel they can make more money doing so.  Appropriate regulation, uniformly enforced, helps us all.  Regulation that is not enforced routinely hurts everybody.

Executive Action

When the accident occurred, Chilean president Sebastián Piñera went almost immediately into action.  Before he arrived at the scene, one rescue effort was already in progress.  At that point, it was not even known if any miners were left alive.  But this effort was not sufficient for him.  He called for every effort to be made to rescue any miners that may have been trapped.  Two more rescue efforts were mounted.  It was one of the extra drill-holes that reached the trapped miners first.

When the first trapped miner was rescued, one of the first to embrace him was President Piñera.  I’m trying to imagine this happening here in the United States.  I can’t imagine Barack Obama being present in a raincoat and hardhat embracing someone plucked from a mine in Pennsylvania.  I can’t even imagine Joe Biden in that role.  Maybe that’s for the best.  Obama and his Secret Service contingent might just have gotten in the way.  But I don’t really think that’s an excuse.  I think that the best that we might have expected might be a fly-over in a helicopter.

I’d like to draw a parallel to the gulf oil spill earlier this year, supposedly the “worst natural disaster in US history.”  Where was Obama when it came to this disaster?  Yes, he eventually flew over in a helicopter, walked on a beach or two, and even visited some of the affected businesses.  But what did he do about it?  Did he do one thing to fix the problem?  Piñera asked for solutions from multiple countries to solve his problem.  Did Obama even call on the experts available in the United States?  No!  He was quick to say he would find out who was to blame and that they would be held accountable.  Who cares?  We had a state of emergency, and emergency action was necessary.  The issue at hand was closing the spill.  He left that to British Pretoleum, BP, the supposed perpetrators, to fix the problem.

What could he have done?  He could have asked for other countries to assist in the well closure.  He could at least have set up a board of experts from US companies to help with coming up with a plan for capping the oil well.  He could have assigned NASA to the problem.  But he was too busy assigning blame.

Other countries volunteered to help.  They event sent cleanup vessels to help.  Vessels that were not allowed to enter US waters because the US government would not yield its sovereignty to US waters, even for this limited purpose.

Where was the celebration when BP, acting alone, capped the oil spill, weeks ahead of projections?  Every news outlet, from CNBC to Fox News, calmly reported that the oil well had been capped, then promptly stopped talking about it.  No one congratulated BP.  No one got hugged.  Have you heard one word about the real environmental impact since then?

I may not be the first.  But let me say:  Congratulations, BP.  Thanks for stepping up fixing a problem that your company created.  I know that you didn’t intend for this to happen, and didn’t expect this to happen, but thank you for accepting financial responsibility for those that were impacted by this accident.  I do believe that you could have anticipated this disaster.  I also believe that you didn’t anticipate it, and that you’re working hard to make things right.  I believe a lot of people that led to the accident need to get sacked.  I also believe that a lot of people that helped to solve the problem should have gotten hugs.  I would hug them in person if given the chance.  In the meantime, please accept this electronic hug.

The Space Program

Yes, really, I’m talking about the space program.  The vehicle that rescued the trapped miners was designed by NASA, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  NASA helped with understanding and treating the condition of the trapped miners, not unlike the condition of astronauts trapped in Earth orbit for long periods of time. 

There are those that would end our US space program.  To be honest, they already have.  They are ignoring, or discounting, the benefits of this endeavor.  It isn’t just about discovering what the Moon is made of or landing men on Mars, both of which do have their own benefits to speak of.  But we all gain, every day, from the technologies developed in this endeavor.  We probably wouldn’t, for example have our I-Phones or even our laptops today, without the transistor research funded by the space program.

Robots

Yes, really, I’m talking about robots.  These days, my car is built by a robot.  When I call my bank, I don’t get an operator like I used to.  I get a robot.  How am I better off by having a robot answer my phone call?  How does this help anybody but the shareholders of the bank?  Does it help the people that the bank used to employ as telephone operators?  And yet, we accept this as progress.

How can we sit still while robots are replacing telephone operators, while human beings are working 700 meters below the surface of the Earth to find the copper that goes into our telephones?  I will tell you that as long as we are ok with this, we are responsible for what actually happened, and what might have happened, to these 33 heroes.

Since the year 2000, an average of 34 people have died in mining accidents in Chile.  That’s more than the number that were rescued this month.  Where was the international coverage for this loss of life?  43 died just in 2008.  Did you hear about that?

Why on Earth, or under the Earth, would we replace human operators to answer our phone calls, to save a few cents per call, buy we won’t employ machines to do the work of those who risk their lives to walk hundreds of meters below the Earth’s surface just to provide our coal, our jewels, and the metal that makes our cell phones work?

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