United Steelworkers files suit on behalf of Mexican miners

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The families of three miners killed in an explosion four years ago in Mexico have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Phoenix against the mine's owners and subsidiaries.

Sixty-five miners in the Pasta de Conchos mine in Coahuila, Mexico, were killed after a methane gas explosion on Feb. 19, 2006. Citing a high level of methane gas, Grupo Mexico, the owner of the mine, called off a rescue mission to recover the miners' bodies six days later.

Despite pleas from the victims' families, the Catholic Church and the United Steelworkers, none of the bodies have been recovered.

"We have been demanding they dig up the bodies ever since this happened," said Daniel Kovalik, senior counsel for USW. "It's fallen on deaf ears and that's why we were finally forced to take this action."

The lawsuit, which was drafted by the legal department of USW, claims that the families would be unable to receive justice in Mexican courts because the country does not have an "independent or functioning legal system."

Instead, the legal system is "held captive by powerful economic interests, such as the defendants," according to the suit. Further, those in Mexico fear violence and retaliation for raising their concerns, the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, Grupo Mexico failed and refused to take the steps necessary to prevent the 2006 catastrophe.

In July 2004, an inspection that lasted three hours but was never completed, revealed 48 deficiencies. In September 2005, the director of the federal labor delegation in Coahuila issued an order requiring the defendants to resolve 34 of those deficiencies.

However, according to the lawsuit, that never happened.

Instead, the company, which received complaints from its own employees about the high levels of methane gas, large quantities of highly combustible coal dust, as well as ventilation problems, did nothing, the complaint said.

The union there had even gone on strike 14 times to protest Grupo Mexico's refusal to review health and security measures.

Following the explosion, the Mexican Geological Service found that it could have been caused by carbon methane emissions reaching explosive levels because the mine was operating at a higher than recommended capacity. Other causes it cited included the accumulation of coal dust, as well as poorly maintained equipment and improper use of welding and cutting equipment.

A spokesman for Grupo Mexico did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In the years since the explosion, the victims' family members have demanded answers from the mining company, but they have been ignored, Mr. Kovalik said.

"There's been incredible indifference to the suffering of the families," he said. "They value money over people's lives."

USW has worked closely with the union, Los Mineros, in Mexico for several years and currently has 21 members on the ground in Cananea, Mexico. They are attempting to provide support to miners in one of Grupo Mexico's copper operations.

The workers with Los Mineros have been on strike there for 31 months, demanding a fair and equitable labor agreement. Mr. Kovalik said there are now plans for Grupo Mexico to call the military in to end the strike.

"It really, for us, is a moral issue."

Though he acknowledges the battle against the mining coporations will be difficult, Mr. Kovalik said it's essential in today's global economy.

"Really, we view this as an act of solidarity for the world. We're putting pressure on all fronts," he said. "We're mustering economic, political and legal support."

In addition to Grupo Mexico, other defendants in the case are two entities controlled by the company, Americas Mining Corp. and Southern Copper Corp. They have offices in Phoenix and Tucson.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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