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2010年10月17日 (日)


--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 15
EDITORIAL: Lessons from Chile

People all over the world held their breath as they watched the dramatic rescue of the Chilean miners and then breathed a collective sigh of relief as they were reunited with their families.

All of the 33 miners were trapped 700 meters underground when the copper mine in northern Chile collapsed in early August. They were lifted safely to the surface after being stuck in a tunnel for 69 days.

It was a rescue drama that will be remembered by posterity. It was made possible by good judgment and effective leadership from a veteran miner, fine teamwork among the miners, the family love that supported them throughout the ordeal, aid offers from around the world, and the tenacious efforts and technological prowess of the rescue team that accomplished a dangerous mission.

Behind the accident, however, lies a daunting challenge for today's world: soaring global demand for resources driven by the robust economic growth of China and other emerging countries, as well as the decreasing availability of those resources.

Chile has the world's largest copper reserves and is the largest producer of the metal. It has the world's largest open-pit copper mine, which stretches more than 4 kilometers and attracts droves of tourists, as well as many smaller mines.

The San Jose mine, where the accident occurred, is one of those medium- to small-sized mines. Its safety has been repeatedly called into question, and it was shut down following a fatal explosion in 2007. The mine was reopened in summer 2008 as copper prices shot up.

It is hard to deny that the mining was resumed hastily without enough effort to deal with safety concerns. In the August accident, as much as 700,000 tons of rock collapsed. After years of serious effort to improve safety at large mines across the globe, the rock fall surprised many industry observers, who say such a large-scale mine cave-in is now almost unthinkable.

Demand for copper and other metals is perking up as the world economy recovers from the global recession triggered by the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008. In particular, China, where demand for copper started growing sharply in the late 1990s, now accounts for about a third of global demand. As a result of the explosive growth of demand, copper prices have skyrocketed.

Higher prices make even poor-quality mines economically viable. The trend in recent years has been toward deeper and poorer-quality mines.

The San Jose mine was reopened against this backdrop.

The world's dependence on China for supplies of rare earth metals, which are indispensable for manufacturing a wide range of high-tech products, is attracting much international attention.
But there is also no room for optimism about the future outlook of such common metals as copper, aluminum and lead. There are few alternatives for copper, an essential material to produce electric wires, and many of the easy-to-operate copper mines have already been developed.

Mining-related accidents are, unfortunately, not a rarity. More effort should be made to expand international cooperation, not just in dealing with accidents once they occur, but also to prevent accidents by implementing proper safety measures.

It is also necessary to take steps to prepare for the eventual depletion of these natural resources. It will become increasingly important in the coming years to make more efficient use of limited resources and expand their reuse. Japan has a significant role to play in promoting such efforts.

The U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has approved the lifting of the moratorium on deepwater oil drilling imposed after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It is also vital to minimize the environmental impact of underground mining and resource development projects.


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