The Price of Colombian Coal

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MARCO: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. There was a lot of talk about clean coal during the presidential campaign. The candidates including Barack Obama touted clean coal as a way to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign energy sources, but not all coal burned in the United States is local. Some of it comes from Colombia. Coal miners in the South American nation lead hard lives, harder even than those of miners in the U.S. Here's more from reporter Steven Dudley.

STEVEN: Colombian coal miners have always had it rough. Right-wing paramilitaries have killed four unionized miners since 2001, two of them after they left the country's second largest mine on a company bus. The militias accused them of sympathizing with left-wing guerrillas at the time and the deaths are part of a string of union killings that have stalled the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia. Now, the war is abating and coal production is growing. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says Colombia will be the second largest exporter of coal in the world by 2030. But there seems to be little oversight of the mines and working conditions are substandard at best. Francisco Ramirez is the president Sintraminercol, one of the three mining unions in the country. "A Colombian miner is seven times more likely to die or get injured here than he is in the U.S.," says Ramirez. What's more, the U.S. miner makes seven times what a Colombian miner does.
In the Northeastern province of Cesar along the Venezuelan border a bulldozer pushes dirt from the entrance of a small open pit mine. Most Colombian mines are open pit, so much of the work focuses on pushing dirt and large rocks from the site. The work requires a steady hand and a sturdy body. Alvaro Mercado drove a truck for the U.S. coal mining company Drummond. He says giant multi-ton rocks that were pushed into the back of his truck from a hill some 20 feet above the truck jolted him constantly and eventually gave him back problems. "I can never sleep, because I have to move every five or ten minutes," he says. He takes pain killers to keep him going but hasn't worked in months. Mercado is part of an association of workers who were injured at Drummond's mine. There are over 200, most of them with spinal problems like him and many of them in their thirties wondering what's next if they can never return to manual labor.
In Cesar, mining sites dot the region creating job opportunities and wreaking environmental havoc at the same time.
The Toqui River is but one example. Hido Salazar grew up in Cesar. "We used to fish here," he says looking at the milky gray river discolored by waste called tailings that leech into the water. Salazar says people no longer swim or hunt here either, but there are no studies about what the mines are doing to the environment. Salazar, an engineer by profession, understands the paradox the region is facing. Even while he laments the destruction of the ecosystem he's gained work as a contractor for mining companies for last ten years. Nowhere is this paradox more evident than here in Agua Fria. Trucks full of coal owned by one of the largest mining companies in the world, the Swiss-based Glencore, feed a giant conveyor belt that drops tons of coal into a waiting train for export to the United States and Europe. Jose Moscera owns a nearby general store. His two young children suffer from chronic coughs. He doesn't have the money to diagnose these afflictions he says, much less the ability to move his business which wouldn't be here if it weren't for the coal mining in the area. "Here," he says, "Even the animals are getting sick." "They're killing us slowly," he later adds. The regions hospital records show that one-seventh of its close to 50,000 patients last year reported respiratory problems and another 400 died as a result of pulmonary-related problems. At the local airport, Cesar's Health Minister Efryan Cavillo says it could get much worse, especially since production in the province is expected to double when Drummond starts mining what will be the largest open pit in the world. "There are some people who want to minimize it,? he says, ?but all you have to do is look and see the huge cloud of coal dust to know that it's having an impact. It's not clear if any of this will affect the Obama Administration's position on so-called clean coal or trade with Colombia. The President-elect has said clean coal technology would offset some of this environmental and social impact, but such technology is years away in the United States and decades away from places like Colombia. For The World, I'm Steven Dudley in Cesar Province, Colombia.