Why Chile's Once Trapped Miners Are Suing Their Government

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Hugo Infante / Reuters

Miner Osman Araya hugs his wife after arriving as the sixth miner to be hoisted to the surface in Copiapo October 13, 2010.

Last October, the Chilean miners known simply as "Los 33" became an icon of Chilean national unity and a global media obsession as they emerged after 69 days trapped 2,300 ft. below the Atacama Desert floor, heads held high. But with the euphoria of their tale of resilience, courage and solidarity long faded, 31 of the world's most famous miners have filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the government, blaming their ordeal on careless mine inspection. The remaining two miners hold the company rather than the government responsible and are represented by a different attorney.

Luis Urzúa, the group's shift leader underground and their spokesman since resurfacing, says the suit is not about the money, as some believe. Nor is it an attack on the administration of conservative President Sebastián Piñera, who, despite sharply declining approval ratings, can still count Los 33 among his biggest supporters.

Urzúa insists the misfortune that befell Los 33 was the consequence of years of official negligence. If the celebrity created by their miracle rescue can serve a greater purpose, he says, they hope it will be to help transform safety enforcement in Chile's vast mining industry.

"Chile is a country of miners and is socially committed to mining," says Urzúa. "But it took what happened to us for the government to finally take steps so that these accidents don't continue to occur."

Despite promises to tighten mine-safety measures, the government has yet to enact legislation on the issue. Shortly after the accident was first reported, when the location of the miners was still in question and even less was known of their condition, Piñera fired the national director of the National Geology and Mining Service (Sernageomin), Chile's mine safety monitoring agency; set up a national commission to investigate the accident; and assembled a team of experts tasked with revamping the mining industry's regulatory framework.

Earlier this year, the commission concluded that Sernageomin bore responsibilty for the accident along with the owners of the San José mine, the San Esteban Mining Co. The regulator had allowed the company to slide on all manner of safety violations that resulted in several fatalities in avoidable accidents. Even those measures demanded by Sernageomin — including the completion of an evacuation ladder that might have prevented the 33 miners' being trapped — were not implemented by the owners or enforced by the regulator.

As part of a recent Cabinet reshuffle in response to mounting public anger at his administration on a range of unrelated issues, Piñera reassigned Laurence Golborne, who as Mining Minister was the architect of the rescue effort and is one of the most popular Cabinet ministers, to the Public Works portfolio, which includes postearthquake reconstruction. Golborne has called for far-reaching changes to the mining industry's regulatory agency. This week Piñera signed the proposed new mining law, which increases resources for the industry's watchdog agency and grants supervisory authority to hundreds of miners to monitor safety inside the mines. But the law still requires approval from the National Congress.

While at least one of the 33 has returned to mining, most say they have no intention of doing so. But the 31 plaintiffs plan to use their lawsuit to shape a legacy that protects miners — those who produce the country's national wealth — by ensuring that safety standards are enforced, which their bosses and government failed to do. "An example of justice has to be made in this country and the world," miner Mario Sepúlveda told local media. "If a poor supervisor had committed this mistake, he'd probably be in prison."

In essence the miners are challenging a business culture in Chile that allows for scores of fatal accidents every year, says Manuel Antonio Garretón, a sociologist at the Univeristy of Chile. Working-class Chileans have rarely had an opportunity like the one offered "Los 33" to fight for the safety of all who do dangerous work. "At this moment" he says, "nobody is in a morally superior position to the miners."

Sernageomin data shows that the rate of fatal accidents is at its lowest in a decade, but thousands of medium and small mining operations continue operating in dubious working conditions with scant oversight. These miners, called pirquineros, stand to benefit most from a suit whose purpose is to create mechanisms of accountability for those responsible for mine safety. Even if the case is won, however, it's unlikely to result in a new law, according to Jerónimo Carcelén, an attorney and an expert on Chile's mining laws.

Instead, "the long-term achievement will be not only that companies maintain and improve safety practices but also that the miners themselves and the community demand the highest safety standards," says Carcelén.

A majority of the miners' families filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the San Esteban Mining Co. while the men were trapped underground. With that suit, the nearly $17 million lawsuit against the state and their book and movie deals, "Los 33" won't have to set foot inside a mine again if they so choose. But lawsuits can drag on for years, and none of the miners' financial situations have seen a marked improvement, says Urzúa.

For most of the 33, their busy days have slowed, replaced by the routine of life as out-of-work miners. On the anniversary of their saga, they will gather outside the San José to reflect on all that has transpired. Says Urzúa, "It's important for us as miners that the world know the hope and desire to live, friendship and camaraderie, the faith we had to survive."