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Workers Blame Freeport for Fatal Incident at Giant Papua Mine

Members of Indonesian Workers Union (SPSI) pray outside the Ministry of Energy And Natural Resources in Jakarta, Indonesia during a solidarity rally for the victims of the collapsed mine at a Freeport mining area in Papua province, May 21, 2013.
Mine workers in West Papua, Indonesia, are raising questions about safety standards at a giant gold and copper mine where an underground training facility collapsed last week, killing dozens of miners. The Freeport Workers’ Union says the company ignored employee complaints that could have prevented the fatal incident.

Freeport workers were attending a safety training session when the tunnel to the Freeport McMoRan underground training facility collapsed last Tuesday.

Ten people managed to escape, five were killed instantly and 23 others were trapped inside. Despite intensive rescue efforts this week, there have been no further survivors. The final death tally reached 28.

Freeport McMoRan has rushed to generously compensate the victims’ families, including providing scholarships for their children.

But questions remain about the safety standards of the underground training facility.

Freeport Workers Union official Virgo Solossa said the company could have done more to ensure safety standards.

Solossa said that during evaluations of regular training sessions conducted by Freeport, many workers had expressed concern about the safety of the underground training facility.

He said the incident could have been avoided if the training center had been moved above ground as repeatedly requested by the workers.

He said Freeport did not care and never responded to the complaints.

But at a joint news conference Wednesday with Indonesia's Energy and Mineral Resources Minister, Freeport McMoRan President and CEO Richard Adkerson said he had no reason to believe safety standards at the training facility were sub-par.

“I told Mr. Minister that had I been there that day I would have joined our workers in that mine because we had no concerns or fears about its safety. And, that’s why we need to understand why this happened. We did not consider this a dangerous place. If we had had any indication of danger we would have never have had people in there,” Adkerson said.

Adkerson said that safety in all underground mining operations will be reviewed and the company will be transparent about its findings.

Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Jero Wacik also confirmed that an independent team, including Indonesian and international specialists in geotechnical science and underground mining, will investigate the cause of the incident.

Operations at the giant Grasberg mine have been suspended since the tunnel collapsed and will not be resumed until the investigation is complete.

And, although Freeport has a solid track record in terms of safety, mining analyst Kurtubi said this incident proves otherwise.

“They try to be good in safety, but what has happened in this tragedy is proof that safety procedures at Freeport actually are not as good as we thought before. We know that this is underground mining, but as a global mining company, Freeport should strictly meet the procedures,” said Kurtubi.

The Freeport mine is located in the remote region of West Papua, a province where separatists have long fought for independence and where access for foreign journalists has long been restricted.

Workers demanding improved safety conditions are reported to have been protesting outside the mine for the past week.

In recent years, workers at the mine have paralyzed production during consecutive-month-long strikes because of wage disputes.