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BIG GOSSAN COLLAPSE: Learning from Tragedy
Workers take part in the rescue effort after an underground tunnel collapsed in Big Gossan at the Grasberg complex, West Papua (5/17). REUTERS/PT Freeport Indonesia
Wednesday, 29 May, 2013 | 08:31 WIB
BIG GOSSAN COLLAPSE: Learning from Tragedy

It is not appropriate for the management of Freeport Indonesia to be counting costs when this giant mining company based in Mimika, Papua stopped its operations following the collapse of the roofing of one of its underground chambers. Indeed, stopping production was the only decent thing for the management to do. The incident happened at Big Gossan mine site, level 3,020, last Tuesday.

The stoppage means that Freeport will be short 1.3 million tons of its copper and gold production this year. On a daily basis, it produces 220,000 tons of ore. Of that amount, 140,000 tons comes from the open-pit mines and the rest from its underground mines. As a result of the stoppage, the government's income from this mining company will also undergo a decline by about Rp17.83 billion a day.

Nevertheless, we must take into consideration that however big the loss, it is nothing compared to the suffering experienced by the victims. They were trapped inside a lower chamber when they attended a refresher's training course on work safety in underground mining areas. It is now confirmed that 28 people died and 10 were injured following the collapse. A major part of the 50-square-meter classroom, built 15 years ago and used for the first time in 2000 was practically buried under 192 cubic meters of rocky debris.

This incident should be treated as an important wake-up call for the company's management. One question that emerges is how a giant mining company of Freeport's class could be negligent about safety at 800 meters underground. The absence of an escape route was fatal. In one of its own report, the Freeport geological team itself said that the collapse at the Big Gossan tunnel was caused by rock erosion of the ceiling, brought about by the continuous dripping of acidic and corrosive rainwater.

An independent investigative team must be sharp enough to differentiate between human error and natural disaster. The erosion on the ground and the rocks on top of the tunnel may be caused by natural elements. But the failure to anticipate them must be seen as human error. Ensuring the workers' safety at hundreds of meters underground would need to rely on external supply of oxygen, and this is entirely the responsibility of the company.

Although it is a bitter reality, the production stoppage is the right step to take following the victims' evacuation. What need to be looked at are other cases of rock erosion in other places. After the independent investigation team has done its job and submitted its findings, and compensation towards the victims and their families has been made, appropriate and concrete sanctions must be meted out to this company if they are found to be negligent in ensuring the safety of its workers.

The government must bear some of the responsibility. Law enforcers are required to have the fortitude to act against companies which undermine employee safety. Furthermore, Law No. 1/1970 on Safety at Work Places determines that violators will be fined a maximum of three months in jail and a fine of no more than Rp100,000, must be revised. This is too light a punishment for a fatal mistake resulting from corporate negligence. (*)