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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Chile, Hungary and covering industrial disasters

Friday, October 15, 2010 | 12:38 p.m. CDT; updated 12:48 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 15, 2010

Charles Davis, associate professor, Missouri School of Journalism: Mining and resource processing cause environmental disasters and human suffering around the world. Last week, Hungarian communities were deluged by toxic sludge from an aluminum plant. Nine people have died, and the environment is contaminated with cadmium, mercury and other toxic wastes. In Chile, the rescue of 33 miners trapped underground in a collapsed mine for 69 days finally came to an end yesterday. Earlier this month in the United States, West Virginia’s Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, sued (Environmental Protection Agency) against new regulations over mountaintop removal in the Appalachians. Following this, 50 Democrats urged the president to keep fighting to protect the mountains. Here to discuss the issues are three journalists: Matt Craze, reporter for Bloomberg, Santiago, Chile; Janos Gal, correspondent for Agence France-Presse, Budapest, Hungary; and John McQuaid, independent environmental journalist, Washington, D.C. Janos, give us a quick update on where we stand in terms of the toxic sludge release and the clean-up conditions.

Janos Gal, correspondent for Agence France-Presse, Budapest, Hungary: At the moment, there is red sludge in the villages around the reservoir. Rescuers are occupying the streets and pulling out the trees and plants everywhere because they are contaminated. But production is going to restart at the factory tomorrow afternoon.

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Davis: Is that a highly controversial decision?

Gal: Yes, people are afraid it is going to pose another disaster and the reservoirs are going to fill up again. Everybody would like to see the whole factory shut down.

Davis: Is there concern for the health of the people who have been exposed to the toxic sludge?

Gal: Of course. Now it is very warm here and the sludge is drying up. It is becoming a powderous substance, and if you breathe it in, it is very dangerous for your body. So everyone is really scared of the sunshine, but they are afraid of the rain as well, because once it starts raining, it will wash out the sludge again from the reservoir. Rescue workers cannot reach the sludge, and they cannot construct a new dam. They can only seal off the village but nothing around the reservoir. At night, it is really cold and people have to sleep in a sports center where there is heat. Basically, everyone is fed up. I have seen people shouting at the police and each other, just fighting over food sometimes. It is really chaotic.

Davis: Matt in Santiago, clearly the world’s attention has been riveted on the miners being extracted in Chile. Can you give us a sense of how frequent mine disasters are in that region?

Matt Craze, reporter, Bloomberg, Santiago, Chile: There are a number of fatalities in the mining industry each year. You have two very distinct divisions between large-scale mining companies that have the best practices in mining and fewer fatalities as well as the small-scale mining industry with precarious conditions. This San José Mine didn’t have a very basic feature that any mine should have, which is an alternative escape route. So right now, the government is looking at how it can bolster its regulators that give permits to these smaller scale mining companies in Chile.

Davis: John McQuaid, what does this do to the conversation about the cost of mineral extraction?

John McQuaid, independent environmental journalist, Washington, D.C.: Well, these types of disasters are happening all over the world with some regularity. Six months ago, there was the Upper Big Branch disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 people. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. You hear about this happening in China every few months seemingly. The attention on the human costs of mining tends to be very dramatic for a short time, and then attention wavers and the problems remain.

Davis: I think the average viewer watches a rescue like this and thinks, “That’s a happy news story.” But what is difficult, but very incumbent, upon journalists to do is to remind people of the costs beyond the human costs related to the extraction of minerals.

McQuaid: Right. There is a huge environmental cost in Appalachia. They’re mining underground and also doing mountaintop removal mining where you literally lop the tops off the mountains to get at the coal. All of that debris is then dumped into valleys and mountain streams, and it has a huge footprint even beyond the area where it is done. The government is trying to control this, but the practice has been going on for so long and the coal interests are so entrenched in these areas that it is very difficult to even slow down.

Davis: Part of the constant debate is over the environmental costs and the economic benefits over this kind of extraction. Is that debate playing out in Hungary?

Gal: They are re-opening the factory tomorrow because they are worried about the jobs that people could lose, and of course, if the company is not producing anything, then obviously they are not going to be able to pay for the cost of the damage they have done. What people want is a safe environment, safer practices in how they extract alumina from the mine and how they store the sludge. This factory supplied jobs for 6,000 people, so the whole area relies on this one company. If they shut it down, then they are all going to lose their jobs. 

Davis: I was going to ask you how heavily dependent these communities are on the aluminum extraction industry, and it sounds like almost a company town to some extent.

Gal: Yes, in the Communist era, the whole town was built onto this factory. Before that it was a small village; now it is a town of 35,000 people. There used to be a coal mine here, and onto that coal mine they built a fire station that was producing the electricity for the alumina plant.

Davis: Matt, is that same conversation playing out in Chile? Clearly, there is the heavy economic base on mining and we have had a spectacular disaster. It ended happily from a human cost standpoint, but are we beginning to see that conversation re-emerge over the cost-benefit analysis?

Craze: In Chile, copper mining is a huge part of the economy. Chile provides a third of the world’s copper, and it has enjoyed economic prosperity not found in many other parts of South America. However, there is a sense that there should be improvements made in the mining industry. One of the comments made from the last rescuer when he was hoisted up to the surface yesterday was to never let this happen again. He made that comment live on television to President Sebastián Piñera, so obviously it is an issue here and a growing one.

Davis: You’ve got workers that are so dependent on a single industry and there is not a tremendous diversity of workplace out there to find other work. Therefore, being critical of working conditions must be pretty difficult?

Craze: It is. In this particular area of Chile, there is the Atacama Desert. Other areas of Chile have agriculture, which is a sizeable industry, but in this area of the country, things heavily depend on mining. There is really little else to sustain the economies, so people are willing to take the risk to go into some of these underground mines.

Davis: John, talk a bit about the politics of mountaintop removal. If you study mountaintop removal from its black and white signs, it looks environmentally repulsive. Why does it continue, and how is it tolerated by the citizens of that area?

McQuaid: In reference to your first question, it is a part of the economy in West Virginia, and so all of the politicians who receive donations and other forms of support from coal companies really play up the jobs angle. However, the number of jobs has been declining gradually over the past generation or so, because mining, especially mountaintop removal mining where you use large machines and computers to gauge it, doesn’t require a lot of human labor to extract the coal. So the actual job impact of this has been declining. The area is also quite poor. So it is a bit of an oversimplification to say that this is the only form of employment in the area. The benefits have been declining. The problem is, now what do you do? What kind of economy do you want? Do you want to have tourists? If you want to have tourists, you don’t want to be blowing the tops off your mountains. So that is a debate going on in West Virginia. There have been more people at the community level who are saying, “You’re having a big impact on our houses, blowing up the mountains nearby.” However, with the bad economy in the United States, the politicians have been doubling down on coal mining as the only way to go. So it is a very difficult situation. The coal companies have captured the political establishment in West Virginia. Even if there is a substantial sentiment against it, it doesn’t really get up to the level where decisions are made.

Davis: Yes, you can see that in the Democratic West Virginia governor suing the Obama administration. How much of that lawsuit has to do with midterm elections, and how much of it is legally valid?

McQuaid: It is a little of both, I think. Manchin is running for U.S. Senate, so the timing of it might have been influenced by that. I think they probably would have done it anyway because the EPA has been cracking down on mountaintop removal and specifically the dumping into streams. That is just what they do in West Virginia; they fight attempts to regulate the mountaintop removals. That it happened in October probably had something to do with the campaign.

Davis: Janos, people in Hungary are watching the Chilean miners being rescued as well. Is there a sense that there must be some balance between the environmental regulation and some best practices in terms of mineral extraction and economic development? Is this a situation where economic development just wins?

Gal: Up until now, the threats launched were regarded as nontoxic in Hungary and in European legislation. Now the new government in Hungary wants to change the legislation again to make it legally toxic.

Davis: I read that the environmental minister this week said there is a second reservoir in serious dangerous of collapse. Can you report on that a bit?

Gal: Reservoir 10 broke its dam and Reservoir 9 is right next to it. There is a danger that if the remaining walls of Reservoir 10 break down, they can pull down the walls of Reservoir 9, which contains the same amount of sludge and water. So now they are siphoning the water off the top of Reservoir 9 and pumping it into the river next to it. They are trying to neutralize this sludge, which is really high in alkaline levels that can kill fish and plants in the river. But that is again wrong, because it creates a lot of salt that sits down on the river bed. Now because of this, they are going to have to clear off all top soil from the river bed and from around the river, 49 kilometers length, which is a huge cost to the river ecosystem. Everything has been wiped out from the river. It looks like just a sewage pipe. And it is all because at the time these reservoirs were constructed, they didn’t put a strong foundation in it. And now they say because of a lot of rain during the summer, the walls under the reservoir cracked. Because of that, there was so much pressure inside, the water just pushed the corner of the reservoir out, and this is when the whole flood happened. The same thing can happen again with Reservoir 9, so now they are working on constructing a new dam, which is going to be ready in two to three months hopefully.

Davis:  The imagery that we have been picking up from Hungary is truly startling. The images from Chile were certainly much happier ones. Matt, can you bring us up to speed on how the miners are? Have they all cleared their medical tests, and are they being returned to their families?

Craze: At the moment, the miners are still in the town of Copiapó undergoing medical checks. They have been reunited with their larger families. As you may have seen on television, they were only able to see one or two family members when they immediately came out of the capsule. One or two of them needed urgent dental treatment. One of the older miners was suffering from pneumonia. Generally, they’re in very good health according to the doctors and to the health minister of Chile. They’ve been well looked after since they were discovered, and the preparations were quite meticulous for their recovery. They were given exercise regimes, and their diet was carefully monitored throughout the whole time, so they do actually look quite good in health and spirits.

Davis:  So the thousand journalists you referenced when we were chatting off air, are they slowly leaving the country, or are they all still there?

Craze: I think 24 hours after the event, they’re all still there. It wasn’t easy to get down to the mine site. This week, the police actually blocked access to the mine, so the world’s press was sort of trapped out at the mine site for the rest of the week. But they will slowly make their way back to their countries.

Davis: That must have been some scene, a thousand journalists.

Craze: Yes, it was quite amazing how many TV cameras were just focused on the government officials and seeing the different parts of the rescue and also the families that came under intense scrutiny from the world’s media. You effectively had, what a colleague described as, a tent city, where there were hundreds of tents of mainly press but then the families, too. They sort of lived in the same area.

Davis: What’s next for these guys? I’ve heard they were off to see Real Madrid? I imagine there will be many parades in their future.

Craze: Oh yes. We just had an announcement this morning. Initially, the miners will play the rescuers in a soccer match. A lot of them are soccer fans. Some of them came out with the flags of their team, and one of them was actually a professional footballer back in the 1980s. Interestingly, the first rescuer who went down into the mine was also a professional footballer and they played each other in the 80s, so there has been a lot of interest from big soccer clubs in Europe to do something with the miners. We know for sure they have an invite to go and watch Real Madrid play at their stadium in Madrid. There is a similar invite from Manchester United, too. These guys have been invited to take holidays in Greece. There have been some private donations. You can also expect more invites rolling in, so they are going to have an interesting few months.

Davis: It is a fascinating example of sort of bad news gone good. John, can you see any changes emanating from these unconnected but interrelated disasters?

McQuaid: I think there is somewhat more awareness in the world as these things unfold that this type of deep mining and other forms of dangerous activity are going on everywhere and that they have a cost. It is more up to the local authorities to deal with it, and that is really the problem as environmental awareness arises that may bring some pressure as in the case of West Virginia and Hungary and probably Chile also. It is really hard to actually bring reform to these types of activities, so I am not sure what the answer is.

Davis: These are global problems that manifest themselves through local situations that require local response.

McQuaid: Exactly. The world is very hungry for these natural resources, and that hunger is only going to increase.

Davis: Mining disasters have made humans face some of their worst fears, from being trapped in the dark for months, to drowning in poison, to having your homeland turn to rubble. Unfortunately, it is the workers and citizens who suffered in these events while people like Zoltan Bakonyi, owner of the company responsible in Hungary, go free.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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