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In Colombia, King Coal Is Dirty Business For Workers And The Environment

September 10, 2010

A horrific mine explosion, the latest in a long string of deadly accidents, has brought renewed attention to Colombia’s booming coal industry. A key energy source, coal not only fuels several of the country’s electricity plants; it also powers Colombia’s export-oriented economy as a whole. But as the recent disaster made all too clear, coal mining can be truly dirty business when it comes to human lives and the environment.

On the night of June 16, just days before Colombia’s runoff presidential election (see NotiSur, ?), a methane gas explosion ripped through an underground coal mine near the town of Amagá, located some 30 kilometers southeast of Medellín in the northern department of Antioquia. The blast killed at least 72 (recovery teams a still searching for victims’ bodies), making it the worst coal mine disaster since 1977, when 143 people died in the same town.

Sadly, neither of the two tragedies were isolated incidents. Last year nine people died in yet another Amagá coal mine disaster. A 2008 accident in Cucumbá took the lives of eight coal miners, while 32 perished from an explosion in February 2007, in the department of Norte de Santander. The list goes on.

Despite the frequency of such accidents, observers say Colombia’s many coal mines – particularly smaller, underground mines – operate without sufficient government oversight. The recent Amagá is a case in point. Mining Minister Hernan Martinez told reporters soon after the explosion that the mine, called San Fernando, lacked proper gas-detection devices and adequate ventilation. The safety shortcomings are all the more galling given that two years ago, a flood at the same privately-owned mine killed eight.

Worse yet is that the problem is grossly underreported, according to the Bogotá-based Centro Nacional Salud Ambiente y Trabajo (CENSAT), an environmental NGO. “For workers in these types of small and medium-sized mines, the situation is really quite critical,” said CENSAT’s Marta Rincón, a mining researcher. “Due to changes in the law, it’s now up to the municipalities to oversee the mines, but they just don’t have and experience and the knowhow to handle it.”

Powering Colombia And The World

Coal mining is huge business in Colombia, which according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) is Latin America’s top producer and boasts the region’s second largest reserves, just behind Brazil. The EIA reports that in taxes and royalties alone, the coal mining industry contributed more than US$1 billion to government coffers last year.

Some of that coal stays in Colombia, where it is used primarily in the electricity sector. Coal-burning thermoelectric plants represent some 5 % of the country’s total installed capacity of 13,400 megawatts (MW). Large-scale hydroelectric dams provide the lion’s share of that power (64 %) while natural-gas burning generators contribute 27 %.

More coal will be needed as Colombia looks to double its installed generating capacity in the next few years. Of the 13,545 MW worth of new facilities slated for construction before 2013, more electricity will actually come from coal (2,884 MW) than from natural gas (2,520 MW), Colombia’s Ministerio de Minas y Energía (MINMINAS) predicts.

Still, the vast majority of Colombia’s coal production goes to export, primarily to the US, Europe and Latin America, but increasingly to Asia as well. Between 2003 and 2007 alone, exports shot up more than 26 % in terms of volume. The industry has continued to grow since then, boasting an export total of 81 million short tons in 2008, according to the EIA, which now lists Colombia as the world’s fourth leading coal exporter after Australia (278 million short tons), Indonesia (228 short tons) and Russia (87 million short tons). A short ton is a unit of weight equal to 2,000 pounds (roughly 907 kilograms) – slightly less, therefore, than a metric ton (1,000 kilograms).

A favorite target of environmentalists, coal is widely seen as a dirty fuel and key culprit in the global warming phenomenon that should, therefore, be replaced by cleaner alternatives. But even with the global proliferation of so-called clean energy facilities, such as wind and solar farms, coal is and will no doubt continue to be a cornerstone of the world energy market.

In rapidly growing China, coal is responsible for roughly 68 % of electricity production. The US uses coal for about half its electricity production, while overall, some 40 % of the world’s electricity comes from coal. For Colombia, in other words, huge global demand means coal production is here to stay.

“Although at the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008, after the Bali [UN climate change] summit, the future of coal looked bleak because of environmental problems associated with its consumption, the coal market has been highly positive. The price of oil and environmental restrictions in Europe on uranium consumption have meant that [coal] is back to being a principal energy alternative,” MINMINAS wrote in a 2008 report.

Swallowing Everything In Its Path

Critics, however, say the burgeoning industry needs to be better regulated – and not just for the sake of its vulnerable workers. That regulation, furthermore, needs to include not only small underground mines, where most of the Colombia’s recent accidents have taken place, but also large, foreign-owned open-put mines, which account for the vast majority of overall production. Two mines alone, the Cerrejón project in Guajira department and the La Loma pit, near the Venezuelan border, together account for around two thirds of the country’s total production.

Jointly owned by multinational mining giants Anglo-American, BHP Billiton, and Glencore, the highly profitable Cerrejón is not only the largest coal mine in all of South America, but also the largest open-pit coal mine in the world. Already churning out some 30 million short tons annually, the behemoth mine promises to produce even more coal in the future as it continues to expand – by more than 1,400 acres per year – explained Aviva Chomsky, a Latin American Studies professor at Salem State College in Massachusetts.

The massive operation has created huge profits for Cerrejón’s foreign owners, taxes and royalties for government treasuries and thousands of local jobs. But it has also wreaked havoc on the environment as the ever-expanding open-put mine has simply swallowed everything in its path. Ironically, Cerrejón is named after an enormous (14 meter) prehistoric snake species, fossils of which have been uncovered on the site.

“When I first stood on the edge and looked in, I thought I was looking at a moonscape version of the Grand Canyon. As far as you can see in any direction is coal,” Chomsky told NotiSur. “It kind of looks like Hell. It’s very hot, which makes sense since it’s a tropical Caribbean region. But the mine itself creates enormous amounts of heat. There’s spontaneous combustion of coal that’s going on constantly, there’s the deforestation, there’s the inexplicably huge use of major machinery. There are fires every where and just relentless heat and filth.”

The vast mine has been less than an ideal neighbor for the region’s mostly indigenous and Afro-Colombian residents. Cerrejón already gobbled up one town, Tabaco, in 2001, displacing several thousand people and disrupting the lives of numerous others from outlying areas who relied on the small city – the only one in the area with some basic urban infrastructure – for its school, telephone and health clinic.

“A security force made up of private security of the company and Colombian national police and the Colombian army entered the village and simply entered people’s houses and told them they had to leave,” said Chomsky. “People were literally dragged out of their houses…Then they brought in the bulldozers and bulldozed the entire town.”

Those who haven’t been physically pushed off the land have seen their lives altered by coal dust air pollution, water pollution and loss of farm, grazing and hunting land. Respiratory and skin illnesses are commonplace, according to Chomsky. And drinking water now has to be trucked in because the area’s main river “has been completely fouled,” she said.

Blood On Its Hands?

Complaints have also been directed in recent years against another foreign mining company, a US firm called Drummond, which owns La Loma, Colombia’s second largest coal mine. Like Cerrejón, the La Loma mine is viewed by many as environmentally destructive. But unlike the consortium that owns Cerrejón, Drummond has also had to fend of allegations of human rights abuses involving the murders of several La Loma union leaders.

The Alabama-based company denies any wrongdoing. Families of the victims, however, have filed a series of civil suits against the company claiming company officials paid local paramilitary hit men to carry out the attacks. So far Drummond has successfully fended off the accusations. A third suit, backed by the United Steelworkers Union (USW) and the International Labor Rights Fund, is currently being heard in a US district court in Alabama.

“The various suits come down to one general allegation, which is that [Drummond] worked with the paramilitaries, sponsored the paramilitaries to carry out various operations,” said David Kovalik, a USW assistant general counsel. “The long and short of it is they’re being sued for working with paramilitary groups who then use that support to carry out crimes, including murder.”

Coal is already more important to Colombia’s economy that coffee, its most iconic legal product, and is second only to oil as the country’s leading source of export revenue. And if MINMINAS has its way, coal production – as outlined in the government’s 2005 Plan Nacional para el Desarrollo Minero – will more than double between now and 2019. By 2030, the EIA predicts, Colombia will rise to the number two spot in terms of world production.

What remains unclear is the cost that industry growth will exact on workers, the environment and neighboring communities. Without serious regulation, critics warn, the killings, accidental deaths and environmental degradation will only increase apace.

“Minimally, they have to start reining these companies in and start holding them accountable for the conduct in the labor and environmental spheres,” said Kovalik. “While there are some movements to keep the coal in the ground, that’s probably not going to happen. So they have to make sure that the workers are treated well and the environment’s treated well, and that can be done through regulation.”

“Of course it would make it more expensive, and places [like Colombia] probably fear that they risk therefore losing these companies to other countries. But the one thing with the extractive industry as opposed to manufacturing is that if the coal’s there, it’s there. It’s not just a matter of going to Vietnam or China for cheaper labor if they don’t have the coal there. The fact is, Colombia has incredible resources that people want,” he added.

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