MEXICO CITY – As hopes faded of rescuing 10 men trapped in a flooded Mexican coal mine, evidence mounted that the current administration's populist policies have driven the revival of the dangerous, primitive mines that continue claiming lives.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador enacted a plan two years ago to revive coal-fired power plants in northern Mexico and give preference to buying coal from the smallest mines. The purchases were part of the president’s policies to give more income to the poorest Mexicans.
In doing so, the administration resuscitated a form of coal mining so dangerous that lawmakers in both houses of Mexico’s Congress had tried to ban it a decade ago.
Experts say that 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 extracted — are inherently unsafe. At some pits, known as “pocitos,” or “little wells,” air is pumped in and water pumped out through plastic hoses. Some don’t even have that. There are usually no safety exits or auxiliary shafts.
Fifteen men were working inside the Pinabete mine in Sabinas, Coahuila, about 70 miles (115 kilometers) southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas, on Aug. 3. A wall of water from an abandoned mine next door — and possibly wastewater pumped in from a nearby town — filled the single shaft about 40 meters (yards) deep. It blew out so many wooden supports that they have formed floating barriers to rescue crews.
Five workers managed to escape as the mine flooded, but there has been no contact with the rest.
Promoting coal is part of López Obrador’s effort to shore up the state-owned power utility, the Federal Electricity Commission, headed by old-guard politician Manuel Bartlett. Not only was the policy questioned by environmentalists; many also said it endangered miners.
“Manuel Bartlett’s brilliant idea of buying more coal from the smallest producers, and less from big producers, gave rise to a black market that wound up in the exploitation of mines that lack the safeguards needed to protect the lives of the workers,” Miguel Riquelme, the governor of Coahuila state and member of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, said after the accident.
The government utility had defended its decision to buy about two-thirds of coal for power generation from small mines.
“We had to have the mindset of favoring the smallest (producers) because we had to make their economic conditions more equal,” Miguel Alejandro López, the subdirector of purchasing for the company, said in July, describing the orders he got under López Obrador. “Because as he (the president) has said, one of this country’s main failings is inequality.”
López said small mine owners were required to submit proof they complied with labor laws, which in Mexico govern mine safety.
But even the president acknowledged that the Pinabete mine had not complied with the few existing safety and labor standards.
Accidents at small coal mines have been depressingly frequent.
In June 2021, seven miners were killed at a similar small mine in Muzquiz township, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas. The shaft at the Micarán mine also flooded and partially collapsed, and it took days to recover the miners' bodies.
The operations resemble wildcat mines from the U.S. Old West: Horizontal coal faces spread out from the bottom of the shaft and are shored up with wooden poles.
At some mines, the pit-head winches used to extract miners and coal are run off old car engines placed on blocks.
Lawmakers already knew the dangers of the narrow, unreinforced vertical shafts; explosive gas accumulations and flooding risks are common.
As far back as 2012, Mexican legislators tried to pass laws to do away with such primitive mines. The 2006 tragedy in the nearby Pasta de Conchos mine, where 65 miners died after a gas build-up caused a fire and explosion, was still fresh in their minds. That was a larger mine where gas monitoring proved to be insufficient.
A 2012 Senate bill proposed “the outright ban on vertical coal mines, also known as ‘pocitos,’ because that is where the greatest risks occur.”
In 2013, a bill in the lower house stated, “Coal mining activities have generalized risks, because their techniques are artisanal and rudimentary … Risky mining practices must be minimized or eliminated.”
It is unclear why those laws were never passed.
Mine safety activist Cristina Auerbach noted that coal is politically sensitive in Coahuila, especially among the impoverished communities that once made a living from it.
“Coal is a political issue in Coahuila, not an economic one,” said Auerbach.
She said that from 2006 through last year at least 80 miners had died in accidents in Coahuila. “The smallest businesses in the coal region are the most precarious, like Pinabete,” she said.
But small-scale coal mining appeared to be dying out in Coahuila until López Obrador directed the Federal Electricity Commission to ramp up purchases.
“The region was revived with the new purchase orders from the federal commission,” said Diego Martínez, a 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 at that; one man was arrested in connection with the Pinabete mine accident after it was found that the mine was apparently registered under different names or titles on purchase contracts and in labor department records.
No one has been sentenced for the 2006 deaths at the Pasta de Conchos mine.
It is not the first time that Coahuila coal mines have been accused of illegal practices; miners make as little as $200 per week, and even when the few government inspectors have found violations, it has been hard to shut them down.
López Obrador said that the Pinabete mine contract with the Electricity Commission said explicitly it could not be subcontracted, but apparently was anyway.
Auerbach, the mine safety activist, said that hundreds of “high risk” small mines continue operating.
“That's why we're asking that all of the coal concessions granted in high risk areas be cancelled, because (miners) are always going to die,” she said.