Goldmine or dangerous relic: Mine's future uncertain (Feature)
By Javiera Salinas Oct 14, 2010, 19:24 GMT
Copiapo, Chile - With the 33 once-trapped miners all safely back on the surface, the future of the San Jose copper mine in Chile was a mystery Thursday: nobody knows whether it will ever again be mined, or whether it will become a museum.
The mine that became globally infamous after a collapse that trapped the 33 miners on August 5 has been closed by Chilean authorities, who have denounced a lack of safety measures that kept the men inside it for 69 days.
'This mine will not open again as long as it does not guarantee the integrity, the safety and the life of those working in it,' Chilean President Sebastian Pinera told the first of the rescued miners, Florencio Avalos, on Wednesday.
Twenty-two hours later, the mine's shift boss, Luis Urzua, was the last to emerge, declaring: 'I should hope that this never happens again.'
The San Jose mine in the Atacama Desert could reopen in the future. There are rumours that a vein rich of copper and gold was found during probe drilling to locate the miners.
Gustavo Lagos, a mining expert at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, is among those who think the reports could be true. If so, the apparently bankrupt mine owners would be rich overnight, at least until the Chilean government demanded compensation for the cost of the massive rescue operation for the trapped miners.
Rescue workers and the Chilean government alike have denied the existence of such a vein, noting that the mine has had proven reserves of gold and copper for 100 years and that no new veins have been found.
'There is not one gramme of gold in the 9,500 metres of probes that we have made,' said Andre Sougarret, an executive with Chilean state copper giant Codelco and head engineer in the rescue effort.
If the gold hypothesis were true, the only way to reopen the mine would be to invest an estimated 8 million dollars to meet safety standards.
That kind of financial commitment might be tough for the San Esteban firm that owns the collapsed mine. San Esteban is currently undergoing legal proceedings over whether its assets can be sold or rented, or whether it is simply bankrupt, beyond negotiating the release of its employees.
Perhaps another firm with deeper pockets could rent San Esteban's assets, including San Jose and three other mines, as well as two copper processing plants.
If attempts to make the San Jose mine both safe and financially viable should fail, the mine might make the most of the global hype about the miners' rescue by becoming a memorial to a historic event that riveted the world.
Pinera himself vowed not to let the miners' plight be forgotten.
'Camp Esperanza will reflect the hope of Chileans in the future. We are going to build a memorial so that this real feat achieved by the miners and their relatives is kept alive and guides us in the future,' he said.
Meanwhile, the families of the 33 miners gather their belongings to travel to Copiapo Regional Hospital, where the freed men are undergoing examinations.
They say it is inevitable to feel sad about leaving a place that became their home for more two months, for all its cold nights and hot days. They are leaving the tents standing, so that the rescued miners can go back to see where their families waited.
'We want to return and remember what we went through, remember what my brother went through,' said Alberto Segovia, brother of formerly trapped miner Dario Segovia. 'Let us hope it stays how we are going to leave it.'
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