September 2, 2008 / 2:16 AM / 9 years ago

Mexico's makeshift coal pits try to boost output

NUEVA ROSITA, Mexico (Reuters) - A steel bucket holding two men lowers into a pit, suspended on a cable wound by an old truck engine.

<p>Coal miners work at an artisanal mine, or "pozito" in the town of Nueva Rosita, July 31, 2008. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo</p>

At a depth of about 150 feet, the men get out of the bucket and into a tunnel just wide enough for a few men and a couple of wheelbarrows, pitch black save for the lamps on the men’s heads, to mine coal with handheld jackhammers.

Mexicans have been mining “pozitos,” or little holes, like this one in the town of Nueva Rosita in much the same way for more than a century. Now, with energy prices sky high and Mexico’s electricity needs surging, these rudimentary and dangerous mines are working at full capacity.

Rene Zertuche, the supervisor of the pozito in northern Mexico’s Coahuila state, watches as a worker perched on a bolted-down car seat facing the pit pulls a lever to lift a bucket of coal.

After receiving orders over a two-way radio rigged up to an old telephone, the worker uses the same bucket to haul up two men, both shirtless, covered in soot and drenched with underground water and sweat from the sweltering temperatures.

Up to 14 percent of Mexico’s electricity comes from coal, with the rest powered by more expensive fuel oil, natural gas and hydroelectric power. At least four more coal-fired plants are in the works and the state electricity commission is considering converting some oil-fired plants to coal.

The electricity industry burns some 16 million tonnes of coal a year, the vast majority of it from big coal mines. The pozitos supply only a small fraction of that, but with demand rising pozitos are trying to extract as much coal as they can.

Rising energy and commodity prices have boosted informal and dangerous mining techniques in many poor countries around the world, from Honduras to Ghana.

In traditional mining states like Coahuila, there are few options: risk your life in the mine or slip across the border into Texas to work illegally.

Prices of imports are soaring. Coal reached almost $200 per tonne on the European Energy Exchange in August, while the going price for a tonne of coal in Coahuila is $64 (651.38 pesos), one reason the Mexican government is clamoring for more.

LIFE THREATENING

While more mining means more work and money for people in the rich coal belt of Coahuila, which is nestled below the U.S. state of Texas, it also means more injuries and more deaths.

Three people died in accidents at pozitos last year and miners say its rare a year goes by without fatalities.

“You die down below when gas can’t escape and there’s an explosion, there are never any survivors then. Or rocks can fall and kill you, or crush your arm or leg,” said Jacobo Rodriguez, 39, who has worked in Coahuila’s pozos since he was 15 years old.

A methane explosion in 2001 and then a flood in 2002 left 25 pozito miners dead, forcing the government to tighten safety controls.

But coal mining, which releases combustible dust, is life-threatening even in major operations. In February 2006, 65 miners were killed at a mine owned by Grupo Mexico, the country’s worst industrial accident in four decades.

Silverio Valdes, a government official who buys coal from the small miners to sell to the power stations, said the pozitos risk going out of business unless they improve safety standards and upgrade technology to compete with more modern open-pit operations.

And yet the state electricity commission has asked small and medium-sized coal mines in Coahuila to increase production by some 50 percent next year.

Unlike some, the pozito at Nueva Rosita is regulated, at least.

“If you think what we do here looks primitive, the guys without permits are in worse shape,” said Ruben Zertuche, Rene’s brother, who manages the 60-man crew at the site.

“They have no helmets, no gloves. They work at abandoned mines at a lower cost but with higher risks,” he said.

A quarter of the some 100 tiny underground coal mines are not registered with the government and escape regular safety inspections, Mexico’s coal producers’ union says.

“Without any kind of authorization they find a little piece of land and start digging for coal. Then they try to sell what they get to authorized producers like us,” said Rene Zertuche.

In Coahuila, a dusty state littered with dinosaur fossils and steel factories, mine accidents have claimed close to 1,700 lives since the end of the 19th century.

Miners earn between $3 and $6 (30 and 60 pesos) for each tonne of coal they can hack out by hand, more than they could in other occupations.

Some worry the payment system itself leads to accidents.

“The more they mine, the more they are paid, so they go into areas that are unsafe where the tunnels can collapse,” said Gerardo Cardenas, a manager at the coal producers’ union.

“When you see how the pozitos work it’s obvious that they are just as dangerous as they have always been,” said Elvira Martinez, whose husband died in the 2006 Grupo Mexico accident, and since then has become an outspoken advocate for mine safety.

“But instead of closing them down, you just see more and more popping up in this region. People keep going because there are no options. If they complain they get fired,” she said at her home in the modest mining town of Palau.

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