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Regulators face ax over Chile disaster

Rescue workers stand by the entrance of San Esteban copper and gold mine near the city of Copiapo, in the arid Atacama desert, 800 kilometers (480 miles) north of Santiago, on August 6, 2010. At least 34 miners were trapped inside the mine after a cave-in, authorities said, although their condition was unknown.
by Staff Writers
Santiago, Chile (UPI) Aug 13, 2010
Chile's regulators responsible for safe upkeep of the country's mines Friday faced the ax as the fate of 33 miners trapped deep under a collapsed shaft for nine days remained uncertain.

The disaster in northern Chile caused widespread outrage in the country as families of the men, experts and miners' representatives said the accident was avoidable.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has called for the resignation of top officials from the National Geological and Mining Service of Chile, the state-run mining regulatory body.

Sernageomin is now widely blamed for lax oversight of the safety issues in Chile's mining sector.

The English-language Santiago Times carried comments from distraught family members amid anger over comments by Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, who said he thought it unlikely the miners could still be alive.

Rescue teams made several unsuccessful attempts at reaching the miners trapped underground at the San Jose copper mine, near the northern Chilean city of Copiapo.

The miners were working at a depth of more than 1,475 feet when the mine collapsed overhead. Rescue officials said the miners could survive if they managed to access an underground shelter equipped with food, oxygen and water.

However, mining security experts said even if the miners reached the shelter they would now be out of supplies, as the emergency relief was good to last only 72 hours. The mine collapsed Thursday last week.

With news of the miners' safety awaited with diminishing hope, Sernageomin faces a major shake-up and top-level sackings. The regulator's national director, a regional director and a sub-director for the area were all named in an official announcement.

"We have ordered a thorough restructuring of Sernageomin," Pinera said. "This will allow us to modernize and update services. We have information proving that there have been many failures, many errors and many omissions on their part."

Pinera met individually with the senior officials, Alejandro Vio, Rodolfo Diaz and Exequiel Yanes, to ask them to resign after he met again with Golborne and Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter.

Opposition critics called Pinera's action unfair, saying that it deflected blame from others responsible.

Sernageomin said in its defense that lack of funding had forced the organization to cut back on the number of auditors assigned the task of checking out more than 4,500 mines in Chile. It said in the region near the collapse mine alone, it had three auditors overseeing 844 mining areas, a task its workers union called "impossible."

Other critics cited by Santiago Times blamed close ties between the auditors and private sector operators of mines for lax standards in maintaining safe operation of mines.

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