INTERVIEW: Mexico’s illegal coal mines still a major risk to miners

Every day hundreds of men in the north of Mexico risk their lives journeying to the depths of the earth with minimal security measures in search of metallurgical and thermal coal, a union leader warned.

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To reach the minerals they go into rudimentary, illegal underground mines known as the “pocitos” (little wells), which have existed in Mexico since the 18th century, José Ángel Hernández Puente, treasurer at the National Union of Miners and Metal Workers (SNTMMRM), told Steel First.

SNTMMRM estimates there are over 600 pocitos in Mexico, mainly spread across the northern state of Coahuila and usually measuring from one to three metres in diameter.

Local news reports indicate each pocito can produce as much as 30 tonnes of coal per day, which means that more than 6 million tonnes of unofficial run-of-mine coal might be coming out every year of these illegal operations, which are “unlicensed and without basic safety measures”, Hernández Puente said.

This volume compares with the official figure of 16.3 million tonnes of run-of-mine coal produced in Mexico in 2012, which was down by 22% year-on-year, according to the country’s statistics agency Inegi.

“The pocitos are run by men and children equipped only with shovels, pneumatic guns and perhaps gloves,” he pointed out.

Usually, the owners of the pocitos are small companies or entrepreneurs, with miners earning around just 80 Mexican pesos ($6) per tonne of coal, according to local news reports.

“Using a bucket and a steel cable attached to a truck engine, the miners haul out coal,” the union leader stated.

Workers at the pocitos must provide their own equipment, and owners, in a bid to keep costs down, typically do not provide them with emergency exits or well-constructed tunnels, Hernández Puente said.

In order to change this situation, SNTMMRM plans to present a bill to the Mexican congress by the end of the year proposing the regulation of all coal mining operations in the country, the union leader said, without elaborating on the proposed measures.

Current rules
At the moment, there are no laws regulating activities in the pocitos, since they are all considered illegal.

But there are labour penalties.

In April this year, the Mexican chamber of deputies approved a change in the country’s labour laws in order “to prohibit the extraction of coal in wells or holes at depths lower than 100 meters, the so-called pocitos”.

The amendment also enforced greater accountability for worker safety – in the event a worker dies in a pocito, owners will face imprisonment of six to nine years and a fine of up to 10,000 times the Mexican minimum wage, equivalent to 647,600 Mexican pesos ($48,835).

Simply prohibiting the pocitos, however, might not be best solution to the problem, since they have become a widespread activity in Coahuila and other states, with thousands of families depending on income from these operations, according to Hernández Puente.

A report by Organización Familia de Pasta de Conchos, an NGO created by relatives of workers who died buried in a coal mine in 2006, says that the coal region in Coahuila covers an area of 21,832 square kilometres and includes a population of 575,759 people.

“Of these, at least 50,000 children and adults are coal miners [and] many of them work in mines and pocitos,” according to the report.

In some areas, it is actually so easy to exploit metallurgical and thermal coal that people can even make pocitos in their own backyards, Hernández Puente acknowledged.

“People can actually do that, so that’s the reason why the government should regulate [the pocitos],” he said.

Many companies, especially small ones, “do not want to regulate the pocitos because they do not want to invest more money in security, equipment and machines,” Hernández Puente claimed.

Mining law
The subject, nevertheless, is expected to be included in a mining law that will look to introduce royalty payments for the first time in Mexico’s history.

The bill, which was approved earlier this year by the Mexican chamber of deputies and will be debated in the local senate by the end of the year, includes reforms to concessions and mining rights payments.

Mining royalties are part of 95 proposals listed in the Pact for Mexico document released in December last year, the day after the new Enrique Peña Nieto presidency began, aimed at boosting the country’s economic growth through several structural reforms and initiatives.

The mining law also proposes the prohibition of “the mining exploitation of coal through vertical holes [the pocitos]”, but only in the cases in which “the full security of mine workers is not guaranteed”.

This means the government will probably look to assure pocitos are regulated, with workers benefiting from more safety measures.

“The biggest problem is that the pocitos are not [regulated], we hope the Mexican government regulates them,” Hernández Puente said.

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