COPIAPO, Chile — While 33 men trapped in a mine cling to hope that they'll get out alive, the company that put them there says it can't afford to pay their salaries and may go bankrupt.
The San Esteban mining company is in such bad shape that it has neither the equipment nor the money to rescue the men; Chile's state-owned mining company is digging the escape tunnel, which will cost about $1.7 million.
In the days after the Aug. 5 tunnel collapse at the San Jose gold and copper mine, company leaders defended their safety measures, but have since gone mum and attempts to reach anyone at San Esteban were not successful.
Earlier this week, lawyers for the small mining company said that with the mine shut down, and no income coming in, the company was at a high risk for bankruptcy.
Never miss a local story.
How such a financially unstable business was allowed to operate is a question that is putting one of Chile's top industries under the microscope, exposing questionable regulation that may reflect more on government priorities than one rogue company.
Sen. Baldo Prokurica, who is on the Senate mining committee, says he has been pushing Congress for years to increase the number of inspectors for the state regulatory agency, Sernageomin. It has only 18, he said, which makes regulating the country's several hundred mines a daunting task.
"The government has abandoned (the regulator)," Prokurica said. "If you look at the laws, they are good. We need to enforce the laws, not make more laws or increase fines."
Prokurica said the mine operator had a poor safety record. In 2007, company executives were charged with involuntary manslaughter for the death of a miner. The worker's family settled, but the mine was closed until it could comply with key safety regulations, said Prokurica.
In 2008, the mine reopened even though the company hadn't complied with all the regulations, he said, adding that the circumstances surrounding the reopening are being investigated.
President Sebastian Pinera has fired top regulators and created a commission to investigate the accident and the agency. Since the collapse, the agency has shut down at least 18 small mines for safety violations, a possible sign that lax safety measures are open secrets at many mines.
On Thursday, the first of many expected lawsuits against San Esteban and the government were filed, and a judge ordered the retention of $1.8 million of company money in anticipation of the suits.