On October 28, 2013, a firedamp gas leak killed six miners working at a depth of almost 700 meters in the Emilio del Valle well in La Pola de Gordón (León). It was the last major mining accident in Spain, and it has remained unanswered ever since: those responsible for the well – the Hullera Vasco-Leonesa company – have always claimed that they were dedicated to management rather than verification of safety issues; and the security controls, for their part, argued that everything was fine and that the accident was not due to negligence but to fatality. Now, after almost a decade of delay, the case has gone before the court. The relatives of the fallen miners set up an improvised altar at the entrance to the León courts last Monday, the first day of the hearing. It consisted of the helmets and lanterns of the deceased and a canvas with their faces and names. “Justice and Reparation” read the screen. Testimonies from witnesses and those being examined will take place until March 30th.
T-shirts with the image of the miners who died in the Emilio del Valle well before the León courts on February 8th. Javier Casares
Carlos Pérez, Manuel Moure, Antonio Blanco, Orlando González, Roberto Álvarez and José Luis Arias, the six workers who died in the accident, were aged between 35 and 45 at the time. The helmets of three of them, still covered in soot after years of coal mining, have hearts and messages of affection drawn by their relatives, jaded after a decade of waiting for justice. Nuria Pérez, 21, was only 11 when she found out her father wasn’t coming back. Carlos, whose face adorns the young woman’s T-shirt with the slogan “Carlos Pérez always in our hearts,” left a widow – who died of cancer years after the accident – and an orphan. She laments managers “walking in with their heads held high” and fears they’re getting away with it.
The defendants are 16 senior company officials for whom prosecutors are asking for three and a half years in prison (and compensatory damages) for six counts of grossly negligent manslaughter and eight for negligent bodily harm. Hullera Vasco-Leonesa’s defense claims the accident was unforeseeable. The miners died of asphyxiation from the firedamp gas, which devours oxygen without the victims being able to don the safety system.
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During one of the three trial sessions held last week, a group of relatives watched testimonies through a screen in a courtroom. Snorts, ironic laughter, sarcastic remarks, outrage and much head-shaking at the defendants’ arguments, which maintained their innocence, alluded to “an accident” and delegated responsibility to the lower levels of the company. The company’s top managers at the time, Antonio, Arturo and Aurelio del Valle, testified on Monday, assuring that they never skimped on safety and that those problems depended on other people. “We weren’t in the mine all day, we didn’t know the work that was being done, it wasn’t our job,” said Antonio del Valle; “No warning or problem related to safety has never arisen,” said his brother Arturo. The three noted that the Prevention Service is dependent on the Director-General and the Head of Safety and Hygiene.
General director and head of security was Mario Calvo, who claimed on Wednesday “the law was observed”. “No one warned that something was not being met, methane levels were normal,” he explained. However, on October 28, 2013, 12,000 cubic meters of firedamp spilled, which was one of the most tragic episodes in Spanish mining.
Hullera Vasco-Leonesa’s former president Antonio del Valle (left) and former vice-president his brother Arturo arrive at the León courthouse February 8. J Casares (EFE)
The comments infuriated the family. “They shift the blame downwards… We’ll see where the last one goes,” they murmured. And also: “They throw shit at the dead man.” Hullera’s optional director, José Eliseo, stated that “nobody knows why it happened [el escape]’ and called it ‘wrong’ for workers to warn of a lack of safety.
All these testimonies offend Manuel and Roberto Moure, father and brother of one of the deceased: “The worst thing we have is being teased,” they say. Both were miners and, like other colleagues who demand anonymity for their subpoena, tell of scenes of precariousness: “We didn’t have dust masks,” they say. One of the keys to the process is the clarification of the reasons for the dismissal of two security officers who allegedly advised against entering the mine because of the high methane levels. Mario Calvo blamed the “rebelliousness” of the two victims for the dismissal, while employees suspect they were fired for resisting the company. The Emilio del Valle fountain closed a few months after the 2013 tragedy. One of the former miners sighs: “I would come back, I loved the fountain. except at the end.”
They all demand justice. They, of course, talk hundreds of feet deep about other tough episodes. One cites cracked teeth and a “stitched back”; Another was left “purple” after being trapped under a pile of mud for seven hours with only his head sticking out. Perks of trade, they say. And they add: “There can be accidents, but that was industrial negligence.”
Manuel Moure, father of one of the deceased miners. Javier Casares
Moure senior, 75, wears a black T-shirt with the names of the six dead, fogging up the eyes of Nuria Pérez, the daughter of one of the miners who died. The man paces the courts, listening to testimonies through headphones and, from his experience as a miner and warden, claims that Hullera “brutally crushed the coal seam.” His son Roberto made him a promise: “As far as you can’t go, I will go.” Because the man who “has been in the mines since he was 15” is now older, and there are fears the trial will take so long that he dies, not knowing the reason for the tragedy that befell his other son cost his life, Manuel Moure, in the damn gallery 740.
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