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Chilean mining safety still on the agenda

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by Staff Writers
Santiago, Chile (UPI) Oct 29, 2010
Chile's mining industry is awaiting tough new regulations pledged by President Sebastian Pinera as officials warned against complacency after the dramatic rescue of 33 miners from the San Jose gold and copper mine.

Pinera said he would propose strengthening the country's labor safety regulations as a result of the accident that trapped the miners for 69 days. He made the promise when he welcomed the miners to the presidential palace as part of a whirlwind rescue celebration in Santiago.

Pinera has already dismissed top officials of Servicio Nacional de Geologia y Mineria de Chile, the mining regulatory agency also known as Sernageomin, and outlined plans for a major overhaul of the department.

Pinera shut down 18 mines soon after the August accident and is looking into the future operation of another 300 mines where critics have cited major safety issues plus poor economic conditions. The San Jose mine is also closed indefinitely.

A presidential commission on work safety submitted its report to Pinera this week and called for immediate implementation of 30 proposals ranging from improvements in hygiene to better coordination of local regulators.

The San Jose rescue has cost more than $20 million and further spending on modernization of the mining sector is likely to be split between the private sector and the government. The government has dipped deep into its cash reserves to mount a reconstruction program after the Feb. 27 earthquake devastated urban centers, manufacturing and several mining complexes.

The rescue, which involved experts and technical assistance from NASA experts, brought a new warmth to Chilean-U.S. relations, which was reinforced when Pinera met with new U.S. Ambassador to Chile Alejandro Wolff.

In his first news conference in the Chilean capital, Wolff said the miners' rescue impressed him greatly and emphasized its impact on the two countries' ties.

The relationship between the United States and Chile is now on a solid footing, Wolff said, adding he looked to a broader and deeper cooperation with Chile on shared interests.

Officials say the government is open to international cooperation to modernize the mining sector and minimize fatalities in mining accidents.

Chile's safety record would improve if there was greater regulation of smaller mines where regulatory supervision is lax or is subject to manipulation by the operators, critics said.

Officials said the Chilean safety record, although unsatisfactory, was still better than that in China, which reported 2,631 mining deaths in 2009, down from about 7,000 in 2002.

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