Australia’s opposition leader, Kim Beazley, made a thought-provoking remark last week after two miners were rescued in spectacular fashion from a partially collapsed gold mine in the southern Australian state of Tasmania. “No amount of gold is worth an Australian life,” Mr. Beazley was reported as saying. Then he repeated it for emphasis: “No amount of gold.”
The Labor Party leader was calling for an independent inquiry into the rockfall that led to the men being entombed for two weeks in a cramped cage almost 1 km below the surface, implying that the mine’s owners and managers may have cut corners on safety. But even allowing for the politically charged context, the comment stops you in your tracks. Many countries suffer mining disasters — including cave-ins, floods and explosions — but in how many of them would such a sentiment be expressed so unequivocally?
Eleven days before the Australian rescue, 30 Chinese coal miners were killed in a gas explosion in a mine in Shaanxi province, just the latest in a string of similar disasters in China. In January, 12 Americans, seven Romanians and one Afghan were killed in coal-mine blasts in their respective countries.
Nothing resembling Mr. Beazley’s remark was heard about the value of a Chinese, American, Romanian or Afghan life vis-a-vis the value of coal. The black stuff, for the record, is averaging around $40 per ton, depending on source and grade. Gold, meanwhile, topped $700 an ounce last week. Those Australians must really be special.
Either that, or they actually do know the value of a life, while the rest of the world is not so sure. Australia is a mining mammoth: It is the world’s largest coal exporter; it is close to being the largest uranium exporter, particularly following a recent deal with China; and it extracts significant quantities of other commodities from bauxite to diamonds, as well as gold. But its mining operations are also among the world’s safest — and supposedly becoming more so.
According to the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, there are five fatalities per 100,000 employees in the nation’s mines. While that is more than double the national fatality rate, the absolute numbers are declining. Only 10 Australian miners were killed in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2005.
In China, by contrast, more than 6,000 workers were killed in mining-related accidents over the same period, the vast majority of them in coal mines, an industry comparable in size to Australia’s. And that is just the official figure; independent estimates put the probable number closer to 20,000. As for other mining nations’ death rates, they are dwarfed by China’s but still well above Australia’s.
The fact is, when fatalities sink into the low double digits, it is much easier to focus on individuals, as we know too well from disaster reports of all kinds. Tsunamis, earthquakes, train crashes, fires, wars, even terrorist attacks: The greater the number of victims, the harder it is to empathize or even to grasp what happened. In China, witnesses have reported, mines are often sealed after an explosion and anxious relatives turned away at site gates. To a public numbed by gruesome statistics, the missing miners remain safely faceless. In most cases, there are no rescue attempts. Survivors get out on their own or die.
In the Tasmanian incident, by contrast, Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, became household names worldwide, together with their dead colleague, Larry Knight, when they were trapped in the century-old mine after an earthquake (14 other men escaped). But they were more than just names: The story quickly became a saga of heroes, as inspiring as it was nerve-racking.
On the one hand, there was the astonishing humor and bravery of the trapped men — one asked for a newspaper so he could scan the classifieds for a new job and the two joked about overtime and back pay. On the other hand, there was the almost equally stirring resolve of their rescuers, who bonded with the pair during the 320 hours it took to bore an escape tunnel through iron-hard rock.
Mine officials in other countries ought to ask themselves how many of the 10,000 or so men reportedly killed in mining accidents worldwide every year might have survived — and behaved as heroically as Mr. Webb and Mr. Russell — if a greater priority had been put on safety standards and rescue operations. If Australia can do it, with no apparent detriment to the industry, surely others can, too.
After last week’s rescue, Australian Prime Minister John Howard called it “a feat of mining rescue capacity that has almost certainly established a new benchmark in the mining industry around the world.” For once, a politician’s rhetoric might have matched the simple truth.
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