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Colombians View Plant

by Grant WelkerThe Herald News
November 24th, 2008

Somerset —

They have toiled for more than 20 years to get the coal out of ground of their sprawling Colombian open pit mines, but had never seen until Monday where all that material — valuable enough to be controlled by paramilitary groups and dangerous enough to injure or kill scores of their co-workers — ends up.

Estivenson Avila and Jesus Brochero stood by the cold Mount Hope Bay Monday afternoon to watch the Brayton Point power plant in the distance, with a barge loaded with a pile of coal docked out front. For the two Colombian men, it was the latest stop on a tour of the United States that included visits to mines in Appalachia and power plants in Somerset and Salem.
“The coal brings benefit to you but brings a very different experience to us,” said Avila, a union president who recently moved to a new village because of a certain risk: his two predecessors were assassinated by a paramilitary group that works with the owner of the La Loma mine where he is a truck driver.

“In Colombia, it has caused us a lot of trouble and hardships.”
Brochero is a technical mechanic at the Cerrejon mine, currently the largest in the world at more than 18 miles across. His situation is better, he said, because the owner of his mine, an international consortium, takes more responsibility for the workers and neighboring villages. A 47-year-old father of four, Brochero, also a union leader, was trained at a school run by the mining company, which has also negotiated with area communities about relocation.

The villages surrounding the La Loma mine, about a four-hour drive away in northern Colombia, aren’t as lucky, Avila said. They also want to be relocated because the environmental toll the mine has wrought, but Drummond, the owner of La Loma, doesn’t take responsibility, he said.

La Loma is most dangerous to its thousands of workers, though. In recent years, 55 workers have been seriously injured, and in 2002 three workers died when a wall collapsed next to where they were working. Only days before, the workers had warned Drummond that the wall was at risk of collapse, Avila said.

Avila himself, a 46-year-old father of three, has been injured despite 23 years of experience. He was in a truck being loaded when a boulder weighing tons was dropped into the back. He was given a shot and forced to finish his shift. Spinal cord injuries are common in the mines, both men said, because of shocks caused when boulders weighing up to 15 tons are dropped into the backs of massive trucks.

The La Loma mine uses the dangerous process because it can fill a truck with coal in 30 seconds. A safer method, used by Brochero’s Cerrejon mine, which employs more than 10,000 workers, takes up to one minute.

Both men are in the U.S. to educate Americans about the origin of the coal used to power their homes. Both spoke through a translator, Avi Chomsky of Salem, from Witness for Peace, the organization that brought Avila and Brochero here, the first time it has hosted union workers from Colombia.

Typically when environmental groups talk about Brayton Point, they mention its impact on Mount Hope Bay or the area’s air, but the visit from the Colombians gave a rare perspective. Avila and Brochero said Dominion, the owner of Brayton Point, can help their cause by pressuring the mines to pay their workers a fair wage, help with injuries and respect neighboring communities.

Brochero mentioned an often-used phrase in Colombia: “Mining, yes. But not like this.” Union workers like Avila and Brochero earn about $3 an hour. Others can make as little as 45 cents an hour.

In the United States, union workers typically make $15 to $30 an hour, they said. Both men said they were surprised, however, at how similar mines in West Virginia and Kentucky were to those in Colombia. Mine workers in both countries share similar health risks and suffer from “black lung” from breathing in soot, they said. The environment is similarly harmed in both countries, they added.