Mexico shuts mine where explosion killed contingent workers

Mexican authorities today closed a coal mine in northern Mexico where last week a methane gas explosion killed 14 miners and hurt 15 others. The mine is owned by Beneficios Internacionales del Norte (BINSA), and many of the killed and injured workers were not registered for Social Security, which means that they were contingent workers with few if any safety rights and no job security.

The mine is located in San Juan de Salina, a small town about 90 miles from the Texas border in the state of Coahuila, on public land. Local authorities had awarded a concession in 2005 to BINSA to operate the mine. The mine opened just about a month ago. BINSA contracted with Minera El Sabino, which operates dozens of mines in Coahuila, to operate the mine.

The mine was a primitive vertical shaft, a design type that is so dangerous that it stopped being used in most countries shortly after World War II. It had no safety exits or other safety features, and workers had to buy their own safety equipment. They received no safety training, and there were no safety or health committees at the job site.

The explosion was so powerful that it blew three of the miners working 60 meters below the surface out of the mine and tore the arm off a 15 year-old who was working outside the mine entrance. A few days before the explosion, miners reported that they smelled gas in the mine, but the company took  no action.

The region where the explosion took place is known as the Carbonifera, where more than 90 percent of Mexico’s coal is mined. There are hundreds of other similar mines located in the region. Like the mine San Juan de Salina, many of the owners and operators of these mines pay scant attention to safety.

In 2006, an explosion at the nearby Pasta de Concho mine in the region killed 65 miners. The mine was owned by Grupo Mexico, a multinational manufacturing and mining company. Grupo Mexico and the Mexican government came under heavy fire for making no effort to recover the bodies of the dead miners.

Since then, 50 workers at other mines in the region have been killed. “How many more will have to die before action is taken,” said Pedro Rodriguez, a supervisor at a mine that was shut down in 2009 after an explosion killed two workers.

The explosion at San Juan de Salina wasn’t the first explosion at mines owned by BINSA. An explosion at a BINSA mine named Lulu in 2009 and another in February of this year and another in 2010 at a mine named Progress (English translation) resulted in miners’ deaths.

After the explosion at San Juan de Salina, family members of miners killed in other BINSA-owned mines gathered at company headquarters carrying signs that read “Enough Accidents” (English translation) and demanding that compensation promised by the company be paid. “I have three young children and no pension,” said Juanita Maria Cedillo, widow of a miner who lost his life in the February explosion of the Lulu mine.

 BINSA ignored a number of Mexico’s mining laws–the mine had no safety certification and it wasn’t registered with the government. “(This)  tragedy in northern Mexico stands as yet another example of safety risks and dangers by unregistered and unreliable mining installations when demand and pricing of a mineral is at a premium,” said the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions in a recent statement.

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