Colombia mining inspectors have shut down two-thirds of the 30 mines they ran safety checks on in recent days as part of a crackdown on dangerous mining practices after 26 coal miners were killed in two separate accidents earlier this year.
The Mines and Energy Ministry said in a statement that its investigators inspected the 30 mines over four days, and of those closed 20 that it said “posed serious risks to human life.”
The ministry said one of the underground mines inspected had no ventilation systems in place and no equipment for measuring methane or other gas levels.
Twenty-one miners were killed in an explosion Jan. 26 at a coal mine in northeastern Colombia due to an apparent buildup of methane gas. Six days later, on Feb. 1, five coal miners were killed, also apparently due to a methane gas explosion, at an underground mine near the town of Sutatausa, north of Bogota.
“In almost all the mines (inspected) there were health and safety hazards,” Mines and Energy Minister Carlos Rodado said.
Mining is an important provider of jobs in many areas of Colombia, and some have complained that shutting down the mines for safety violations will cause financial hardship on low-wage miners in rural areas where jobs are scarce.
But Mr. Rodado said a plan is in place to provide emergency employment programs to people working in the mines that are shut down temporarily.
“We’re doing this shock plan not to close mines but to save lives, and to fulfill the rules of mining safety,” Mr. Rodado said. “We want to protect the workers.”
Some 100 miners were killed in accidents in Colombia last year. After the first of the two recent mining accidents, Mr. Rodado said that there were only 16 inspectors in a country with some 6,000 legal and illegal mines. President Juan Manuel Santos called for more inspectors to be hired immediately.
Colombia ranks as one of the world’s top coal exporters, and its production destined for abroad is controlled by foreign companies including Alabama-based Drummond Co., Glencore International AG, BHP Billiton Ltd. and Xstrata PLC, which operate in open-pit coal mines. Small locally owned mining firms, meanwhile, continue to produce in underground mines, most of which have poor safety records.