Two idled North Idaho silver mines will roar back into production in coming months, the mines’ operators announced Friday, shocking the world silver market and pleasantly surprising the long-depressed Silver Valley.
The number of working mines in Idaho’s Silver Valley will double when the Coeur and Galena mines, owned by Silver Valley Resources Corp., join the Sunshine Mining & Refining Co.’s Sunshine Mine and Hecla Mining Co.’s Lucky Friday mine in operation.
While few in the Silver Valley would jump to label the restarts a “mining revival,” the news put smiles on residents’ faces.
“I think that’s just great,” beamed Kathy Sheppard of Osburn, who works for Silver Valley Appliance and Mercantile in Kellogg. “That’s just going to mean good things for our business right here.”
A consortium between New York-based Asarco and Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp., Silver Valley Resources found the silver market strong enough to hire 100 miners to reopen the Coeur, idled since April 1991. The company will spend the next 18 months reopening the larger Galena mine, closed since July 1992.
For at least a day, the Silver Valley returned to the forefront the silver market, which it dominated until the market collapsed in the early 1980s. Thousands of layoffs changed the face of Shoshone County.
“Most folks around here can’t afford to pay for things outright, but they put a little money down and pay off the rest as they can,” Sheppard said of customers. “This will really be a blessing to us.”
The reopenings came as a surprise to some, as both Asarco and Coeur d’Alene Mines officials had previously pinned the reopenings on having silver remain well above $6 an ounce. Silver closed Friday down six cents at $5.65 an ounce.
Some analysts attributed the decline to the announcement about the North Idaho mines, which raised the prospect of increased production.
“If nothing else (the openings are) symbolic that we have confidence in the silver market,” said Tony Ebersole, Coeur d’Alene Mines spokesman.
The 100 miners expected to be brought on in coming months will likely come from outside the Silver Valley, said Gary Beck, manager of the Kellogg Job Service. Many of the qualified miners have left the area or retrained for new careers. The mine reopenings could allow some Silver Valley miners to return home.
“I doubt that we have that many people who could go to work there,” Beck said. “I’ve got a lot of friends who are tending bar or working at service stations who’d like a chance at those jobs.”
At their prime, the two mines employed about 410 people, according to Asarco. The companies will use the list of former workers to fill the 100 spots over the next three months, according to the contract worked out with the United Steelworkers of America.
The three-year contract won’t pay as well as contracts at the nearby Sunshine and Lucky Friday mine in Mullan. Paul Glavin, sub-district director of the Steelworkers union here, said that if the two mines prosper, the union would renegotiate contracts.
“We were able to help them be more competitive, while allowing people to increase their skills and pay,” Glavin said from his Spokane Valley office. “This is a big deal for the guy who’s been out of work for a long time.”
For a region that has seen its economic teeth kicked in this decade, the reopening couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Mining can be so iffy, and we’ve been burned so many times,” said Jim Hays of the Silver Valley Economic Development Corp. “But we’re just delighted that they’re doing it.”
Hays continues to work to construct a 15,000-square-foot industrial building in Smelterville to attract jobs. Tourism and service jobs have partially filled the gap left by mining’s decline. But those businesses pay lower wages than what the mines traditionally paid.
“We haven’t had positive news like this for several years,” said Harry Magnuson, a longtime Silver Valley businessman. “Things are never going to get back to the way they were, but this is a start, and it’s a start in the right direction.”
For Mike Montgomery, the new jobs mean more customers on the bar stools of the 1313 Club in Wallace, which he’s owned for about a year and a half. “Any jobs we can contribute to the community helps,” he said. “I’m happy they’re coming.”
At the Wallace District Mining Museum, director John Amonson admitted that “while I appear to be quite calm, I’m actually very excited about this.” He waved sheets of numbers showing how the district has produced only $28 million worth of metals in 1994, far below a 1984 high of $164 million. “This’ll help change that.”
The benefits of additional mining extend far beyond the Silver Valley, as geologists and mine equipment specialists throughout the region will benefit from more demand from their services.
“We’re certainly pleased for the operators of the mines,” said Ivan Urnovitz of the Spokane-based Northwest Mining Association. “We’re even happier for the very deserving people in the Silver Valley. When you’re talking about 100 jobs, that’s 100 new families.”