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Chile's huge open-pit copper mine goes underground

By Luis Andres Henao

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11 2012 9:50 a.m. MDT

Inside one of the tunnels, a bulldozer removed rock and dirt while miners installed a steel mesh to avoid a cave-in, advancing at a painstaking pace of about 13 feet (4 meters) per day. The main tunnel will eventually stretch for more than 4.5 miles (7.5 kilometers).

The future for Chuquicamata, and Codelco, is likely to determine the prosperity of Chile, which has been growing fast and attracting foreign investment thanks largely to the stability that copper royalties provide.

"This (project) is not only seeking to guarantee the production of Chuquicamata but ensure the competitive position of Codelco," Aliaga said.

Everything about Chuquicamata, affectionately known as "Chuqui" by Chileans, is epic in scale, and its history is in many ways the history of Chile.

The area has been mined since before Spanish colonial times, but the current operation began in 1915 under foreign and local interests. When it was owned by Anaconda, the U.S. company built a whole town in the desert to support it, equipped with a railroad, schools, soccer fields and social clubs. Although many benefited, working conditions were risky, many miners died and a wave of strikes and crackdowns roiled the project, making it a symbol of the struggle for workers' rights.

"Che" Guevara visited the mine in March 1952 and deplored the treatment of the miners in his "Motorcycle Diaries."

Pablo Neruda, Chile's best-known poet and a life-long communist, also criticized Anaconda's grip on the Chilean miners.

"It was a grimy multitude, hunger and shreds, solitude, that excavated the gallery. That night I didn't see the countless wounds file by along the mine's cruel rim. But I was part of those torments," Neruda wrote in "Night in Chuquicamata."

The mine became Chilean state property when Allende nationalized copper in 1971 — one of the acts that infuriated U.S. President Richard Nixon. Washington backed Allende's opponents, encouraged his overthrow and knew the coup that toppled him was in the works, though there is no evidence it directly participated.

But when Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973 coup, he declined to return copper to private hands. Ever since, Codelco has kept Chile's economy strong.

Conditions at Chuquicamata today are nothing like what Guevara and Neruda described. Mining remains a dangerous occupation and many workers still suffer injuries at marginal private operations, such as the nearby San Jose mine that collapsed in 2010, trapping 33 workers underground for more than three months.

But mining deaths nationally fell 36 percent last year and it was Codelco that led the rescue of the trapped miners at San Jose, mesmerizing millions worldwide.

The seven-floor hospital Anaconda built in the 1960s is now buried under thousands of tons of rock from the expanding mine. The school's windows are broken and boarded up, and empty homes are caked in dirt. A flattened, dusty soccer ball lies on one of its abandoned streets. The town of 20,000 people was evacuated in 2007 to nearby Calama to make room for the mountains of mine waste, now baking like elephants in the sun.

President Sebastian Pinera says Chileans should put nostalgia aside and look at the Chuqui of the future — an underground mine that will keep delivering wealth to the nation for another 50 years.

"We have to prepare ourselves for the end of the old Chuquicamata and at the same time the new Chuqui, that starts today," Pinera said in July as he ordered the blast that began the work.

"It's nostalgic but we feel we're making history," said Mauricio Vivero, a construction engineer at Chuqui. "Perhaps the grandchildren of some of the miners that Che saw are now doctors, engineers, or even work right here. This mine gave us everything. Behind this mine, rests a whole country."

Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

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