By Jessie Shor
This morning, when we thought of mines, we imagined October Sky. We envisioned coal smeared, ragged miners marching underground. We pictured dusty tunnels, the clank of pickaxes, and miners pushing wheelbarrows heaped with black rock. This, we thought, was the system Chile uses to supply 10% of the world’s copper.
Chilean mines carry different connotations. Thanks to the 2010 Copiapo mining accident, our parents and friends pictured the 33 miners who were trapped underground in the explosion. They thought of the slim prospects of survival, the worldwide concern, and the gaunt faces of the miners when they eventually emerged after 69 days. They were concerned, to say the least.
But the state-run Codelco El Teniente mine is not your grandfather’s West Virginia coal mine, nor is it a symbol of tragedy turned triumph.
As we learned on our visit to El Teniente today, the mine is more aptly described as a cross between the Lord of the Rings’ Mines of Moria and Star Wars. Located beneath the barren moonscape of the Andes, El Teniente began production in 1904, owned and operated by an American company. Chile nationalized its copper industry in 1971, and today El Teniente is the world’s largest underground copper mine. It produces approximately 400,000 tons of copper annually, and boasts 2400 kilometers of tunnels within a single mine – enough to stretch from New York City to Dallas.
Upon arrival, we donned steel-toed boots, reflective jackets, hard hats, goggles, gas masks, headlamps, and tool belts with tracking chips – just in case. We then entered the mine on a bus, driving down to the 5th of eight levels. Yet when we arrived, our precautions seemed overblown.
We found ourselves in an underground city of sorts, complete with paved roads, traffic lights, a cafeteria, and a central command room. The flouresent-lit command center seemed more fitting for a sci-fi movie set than our image of a mine: technicians sat in cushioned recliners before computer screens, remotely controlling the mine with joysticks. With a twitch of the controller or a press of the green button, miners dumped thousands of pounds of rough copper into trucks, for transport to the facility’s mill.
As its promotional video proclaimed, Codelco sees the future in the Earth. Today, the mine has two levels: the original upper mine that has ceased production, and the currently productive mine, which we visited. Codelco, though, has begun production on a third level, one that penetrates an astounding nine kilometers below the Earth’s surface. Production is slated to begin in 2017, and the new layer is expected to bring an extra 50 years of productivity to El Teniente. To achieve that goal, though, Codelco will invest US$3 billion in the project- more investment than the mine has received in its entire history – and construct more infrastructure than has been built in the last five decades.
El Teniente, we learned, is the modern face of mining. Yet that doesn’t mean the mine operates without obstacles. Mine staff fall into two categories: company employees and contracted workers. Contractors received lower salaries and less benefits, and clashes between the two groups are relatively common. Strikes for better benefits are not unheard of, and they sometimes turn violent. Moreover, the Chilean copper industry faces the constant threat that technological developments will reduce demand for their product, though Chinese economic growth currently provides a robust market.
As we drove out of the mine, it was time for miners to switch shifts. Traffic was dense as bus after bus passed us, bringing workers beneath the Andes. As we watched hundreds of miners pass, we were amazed at the scale of production, the feats of technology we had witnessed, and the depths at which it all occurred. Our perceptions of the industry had changed, but it all remained part fantasy, part science fiction, and entirely surreal.