Not any more

Canadian drillers content with losing race to reach Chilean miners – for the most part

In Canada on October 10, 2010 at 19:44

When a drill broke through to 33 miners waiting trapped in a Chilean mine this weekend, Jorge Rios had front-row seats to the wild celebration, as workers on the rig sprayed bubbly and jumped for joy.

Mr. Rios is the manager in charge of Latin America for Precision Drilling, the Canadian company that has also been working to free the miners. The Precision rig is located a stone’s throw from the U.S.-made, U.S-led drill that eventually succeeded.

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But without the advantage of a 15-day head start, the Precision hole remains 150 metres from its destination, a fact that weighed on the competitive personalities in its primarily Canadian crew. Unlike the Americans, they had no bubbly, and no victory parade where they could be mobbed by ecstatic families.

“I wish the Canadians are the ones that are celebrating,” Mr. Rios said Sunday.

“Of course, you expect to be the one. But still for us, the important thing is that they are rescued.”

The Canadian contributions to the rescue effort have been noted by Chilean authorities, who have erected a Canadian flag on a slope overlooking the mine, and by those at home – including Tim Horton’s, which is sending coffee that is supposed to arrive for Mr. Rios’s crew this week. The Canadian ambassador to Chile is also expected to travel to the mine later this week.

Yet by then, their work may be over. The first miners are expected up the shaft dug by U.S. drillers as early as Wednesday.

The Canadians, however, are still quietly at work. On Sunday, drilling on the Precision rig paused for several hours while workers made a change that will allow them to proceed without using liquids in the operation, a step meant to prevent accidental flooding of the mine below. But Precision expected to restart operations later in the day, and will continue to drill, as a backup, until the last miner has been brought to the surface.

A third drill, which is owned by North Bay, Ont.-based Cementation Inc. and run by a Canadian, is at a depth of 600 metres, just 100 metres from its goal. Officials have ordered it to continue until 650 metres – which should happen by Thursday – and halt. It will be reactivated if needed, and can complete the remaining 50 metres in two days.

Though both drills are on or ahead of schedule, both have also poked holes that are smaller than needed to stage a rescue. It will take another four weeks for the Cementation drill, for example, to make its hole big enough to facilitate a rescue.

Part of the reason the U.S.-led team broke through first, after 33 days of work – more than the Precision team, but less than Cementation – lies in the fact that it had a pre-established route. It was able to follow one of three grapefruit-sized holes that had already been drilled to deliver food, water and other supplies to the miners.

The Canadian-led teams had no such advantage. They were tasked with not only drilling deep, but drilling at a very specific target – a job that is more difficult. Cementation, for example, is aiming for an area that is 2.5 metres by 2.5 metres in size.

It’s a challenge acknowledged even by the competition.

“We had a hole to follow,” said Jeff Roten, a service technician for Schramm, the U.S. manufacturer of that drill. “It just guided us. These [other] guys are all drilling blind.”

One obstacle, however, was shared by all three teams: rock that is hard as granite. Mr. Roten’s drill consumed five times as many drill bits as he would expect for a hole of 622 metres.

“Every metre is difficult, every one fought us. It was a hard fight and in the end: Mother Nature, we won,” said Jeff Hart, the Colorado driller who was at the controls when that rig broke through Saturday.

But if the ensuing celebration brought forth a sea of waving stars and stripes, on the flags of both Chile and the U.S., it also brought forth joy from those working beneath the Maple Leaf.

“It’s a relief that, at last, there’s someone down there,” said Glen Fallon, who is leading the crew on the Cementation rig. “Everyone is here for the common good.”


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