The effort to rescue 33 trapped miners will cost millions of dollars, but Chile is in a race against time to free them for fear of a medical emergency, Chilean Minister of Mines Laurence Golborne told reporters on Sunday.
Golborne said the country will spare no effort for the rescue operation and voiced concern about the health of the miners, who have been trapped since Aug. 5, over what is expected to be a months-long drilling effort.
“The rescue will cost millions of dollars, but the amount has been communicated to the president [Sebastian Pinera] and he will decide if or when to make that number public,” he said in an interview.
“We have tried to optimize the use of resources. But regardless, we cannot put a price on a life,” he said. “There is a moral imperative to save these people.”
Golborne declined to be more specific about the exact cost of the operation, which according to press reports could be around US$10 million dollars.
He said a chief concern is the health of the miners during the time it takes to drill about 700m deep to bring up the trapped workers, with experts saying it could take up to four months.
“A medical problem that would be relatively banal for any of us on the surface, such as appendicitis, could be serious for them, because we cannot send a doctor 700 meters down,” he said.
Some of the miners have already suffered skin sores and other minor ailments in the humid, dank conditions underground.
The miners have one man, Johnny Barrios, in their midst who has medical training, and he has been coordinating with medical teams above ground to help take care of the others. For example, Barrios last weeks administered vaccines against pneumococcus, tetanus and diptheria.
The marathon rescue effort has employed hundreds of technicians, engineers, doctors and psychologists who are expected to be involved for the long haul, as experts mull three different options for reaching the miners in the shortest time.
Drillers have already begun two approaches — “Plan A” and “Plan B” — with a quicker “Plan C” route scheduled to begin on Sept. 18. The latter could reduce the rescue time to two months at best, having to only drill about 597m to reach the trapped workers.
“Plan B” began on Sunday, but still has to reach down 620m to get to the miners. It would be a shorter time than the three-to-four months that the original “Plan A” is set to take.
At the beginning of last month, the miners had been given up for lost, but against all odds managed to survive deep down in the mine in the remote Atacama Desert for longer than anyone thought possible.
On Aug. 22, a drill probe finally reached the underground shelter where they had managed to take refuge, surviving by rationing cans of tuna for 17 long days.
The men attached a note to it, saying: “All 33 of us are well inside the shelter.”
Jubilation followed and relatives set up camp outside the mine and began what promises to be a long vigil.