Mexico’s president has revived a dangerous form of coal mining

MEXICO — As hopes of saving 10 men trapped in a flooded Mexican coal mine fade, evidence mounts that the current administration’s populist policies have led to the rebirth of dangerous and primitive mines that continue to claim lives.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador enacted a plan two years ago to revive coal-fired power plants in northern Mexico and prioritize the purchase of coal from smaller mines. The purchases were part of the president’s policy to give more income to poorer Mexicans.

In doing so, the administration has resurrected a form of coal mining so dangerous that lawmakers in both houses of Mexico’s Congress tried to ban it a decade ago.

Experts say mines so narrow and primitive that only one miner at a time can be lowered into a narrow shaft – and only one bucket of coal mined – are inherently dangerous. In some pits, called “pocitos” or “small wells”, air is pumped out and water pumped through plastic pipes. Some don’t even have that. There are usually no safety exits or auxiliary wells.

Fifteen men were working inside the Pinabete mine in Sabinas, Coahuila, about 115 kilometers southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas, on August 3. A wall of water from an abandoned mine nearby – and possibly sewage pumped in from a nearby town – filled the single shaft about 40 meters (yards) deep. He blew up so many wooden supports that they formed floating barriers for rescue teams.

Five workers managed to escape when the mine flooded, but there was no contact with the others.

The promotion of coal is part of López Obrador’s effort to bolster the electric utility, the Federal Electricity Commission, headed by old-guard politician Manuel Bartlett. Not only has the policy been questioned by environmentalists; many also said it endangers minors.

“Manuel Bartlett’s brilliant idea to buy more coal from the smaller producers and less from the big producers resulted in a black market that resulted in the operation of mines lacking the necessary safeguards to protect the lives of workers “, said Miguel Riquelme. , the governor of Coahuila state and member of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, said after the crash.

The utility had defended its decision to buy about two-thirds of the coal for power generation from small mines.

“We had to have the mentality of favoring the smaller ones (producers) because we had to make their economic conditions fairer,” Miguel Alejandro López, the company’s deputy purchasing manager, said in July, describing the orders he received under López Obrador. . “Because as he (the president) said, one of the main flaws of this country is inequality.”

López said owners of small mines are required to provide proof that they are following labor laws, which govern mine safety in Mexico.

But even the president acknowledged that the Pinabete mine had failed to meet the few safety and labor standards that existed.

Accidents in small coal mines are depressingly frequent.

In June 2021, seven miners were killed at a similar small mine in Muzquiz Township, about 130 kilometers southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas. The Micarán mine shaft was also flooded and partially collapsed, and it took days to recover the miners’ bodies.

The operations resemble the wild mines of the American Wild West: horizontal coal faces extend from the bottom of the pit and are shored up by wooden posts.

In some mines, the pithead winches used to extract miners and coal are powered by old car engines placed on blocks.

Legislators already knew the dangers of narrow, unreinforced vertical shafts; accumulations of explosive gases and the risk of flooding are frequent.

As early as 2012, Mexican lawmakers attempted to pass laws to eliminate these primitive mines. The 2006 tragedy at the nearby Pasta de Conchos mine, where 65 miners died after a buildup of gas caused a fire and explosion, was still fresh in their minds. This was a larger mine where gas monitoring proved insufficient.

A 2012 Senate bill proposed “the outright banning of vertical coal mining, also known as ‘pocitos,’ because that is where the greatest risks occur.”

In 2013, a lower house bill stated, “Coal mining activities present pervasive risks because their techniques are artisanal and rudimentary… Risky mining practices should be minimized or eliminated.”

It is unclear why these laws were never passed.

Mining safety activist Cristina Auerbach noted that coal is politically sensitive in Coahuila, especially among poor communities that once lived on it.

“Coal is a political issue in Coahuila, not an economic issue,” Auerbach said.

She said that from 2006 to last year, at least 80 miners died in accidents in Coahuila. “The smallest companies in the coal region are the most precarious, like Pinabete,” she said.

But small-scale coal mining seemed to be dying out in Coahuila until López Obrador ordered the Federal Electricity Commission to increase purchases.

“The region has been revived with the new purchase orders from the federal commission,” said Diego Martínez, professor of applied earth sciences at the Autonomous University of Coahuila.

López Obrador wanted to eliminate subterfuge and corruption in coal purchases, but apparently failed in this; a man has been arrested in connection with the Pinabete mine accident after it was discovered that the mine was apparently registered under different names or titles on purchase contracts and in Department of Labor records.

No one has been convicted for the 2006 deaths at the Pasta de Conchos mine.

This is not the first time that coal mines in Coahuila have been accused of illegal practices; the miners only earn $200 a week, and even when the few government inspectors found infractions, it was difficult to shut them down.

López Obrador said the Pinabete mine’s contract with the Electricity Commission explicitly stated that it could not be contracted out, but apparently it was anyway.

Auerbach, the mine safety activist, said hundreds of “high risk” small mines continue to operate.

“That’s why we’re asking that all coal concessions given in high-risk areas be canceled because (miners) are always going to die,” she said.

About William J. Harris

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