January 31, 2009

With mine closure, town’s future uncertain

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Mark Brown, general manager at the Pend Oreille Mine in Metaline Falls, Wash., is preparing for the mine closure. “It’s a temporary shutdown. We have no intention of a long-term shutdown, but we want to be fair to our workers. We don’t want to create a misplaced sense of hope that the mine will reopen in two months or in a year, because we don’t know when it will reopen.”
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

On the Web: For more information on Metaline Falls and Pend Oreille County, look for a slide show packaged with this story at spokesman.com

METALINE FALLS, Wash. – Michigan’s automobile factories are more than 2,000 miles removed from the Pend Oreille Mine’s assay lab where Sally Dunn prepares zinc samples for testing.

Yet Detroit’s pain is hers, too.

Zinc from the mine is used to rust-proof steel, much of which ends up in new cars and trucks. Over the past year, sharp declines in auto sales have sent zinc prices falling faster than a rock tumbling down a mine shaft. The Pend Oreille Mine, which employs 217 workers near the Canadian border, will close indefinitely as a result.

Dunn’s spent five years as a lab technician at the mine. The closure – effective Feb. 16 – is an unwelcome reminder of how tightly her job is tied to the national economy.

“I thought that we were in a bubble up here, that what was happening wouldn’t touch us,” said Dunn, 43. A single mother of three, she isn’t optimistic about finding other employment that pays $45,000 per year in Pend Oreille County.

“I don’t do a lot of it, but I’m praying,” Dunn said. “I hope they reopen this place; I’m fearful they won’t.”

Zinc dropped from $1.20 per pound to 50 cents per pound over the past year. Prices for other industrial metals also are in a tailspin. Aluminum and lead prices are down 60 percent, while copper is trading at $1.45 per pound, down from $4 in July.

The thudding prices are felt in rural communities such as Metaline Falls and its neighboring towns of Metaline and Ione. About 1,000 people live in the three cities, which feature views of the snow-capped Selkirk Mountains, easy access to the Pend Oreille River, and a lengthy history of double-digit unemployment. The mine is the largest private employer in the area.

Since September, more than 3,000 U.S. mine workers have filed for unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Everywhere you look, mines are closing,” said Douglass Horn, commodity analyst for CPM Group, a metals research firm in New York City.

Teck Ltd., the Pend Oreille Mine’s Canadian owner, plans to slash 1,400 jobs – or 13 percent – of its global work force this year. Company officials say that the Pend Oreille Mine will reopen when zinc prices rise, but they can’t guarantee when that will occur. At the moment, there’s a glut of zinc, and world stockpiles are rising.

“We want to be fair to our workers,” said Mark Brown, the mine’s general manager. “We don’t want to create a misplaced sense of hope that the mine will reopen in two months or in a year, because we don’t know when it will reopen.”

A skeleton crew of 50 primarily maintenance workers will remain on the Pend Oreille Mine’s payroll during the closure.

Metaline Falls’ name illustrates the region’s long association with mining. Prospectors looked for gold in the mountains rising from the Pend Oreille River, but their richest strikes were zinc and lead.

Once upon a time, the Pend Oreille Mine was one of three mines operating near Metaline Falls. The town’s past prosperity is memorialized in graceful brick buildings, including the Cutter Theatre – a former schoolhouse designed by Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter, whose lavish buildings symbolize the lofty aspirations of the early Inland Northwest. But the boom times ended long ago. The Pend Oreille Mine was shuttered for decades before Teck reopened it in 2004.

At the time, Teck officials were candid about the mine’s prospects. It would probably run for 10 years. Though not a rich deposit, the mine lies 50 miles from Teck’s smelter in Trail, B.C., which helped its bottom line. The mine also opened during a six-year run of bull markets for metals.

Community leaders dreamed of a decade of prosperity. They envisioned new shops in vacant historic buildings. They hoped to lean on the mining industry while strengthening other parts of the economy, diversifying the job base so the area could weather the mine’s eventual closure. But the business growth hasn’t materialized.

Pend Oreille County remains “a frontier economy,” said Arum Kone, a regional economist for the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. It’s dependent on jobs in logging, mining and governments, including the Kalispel Tribe. Despite high-paying jobs at the mine, Pend Oreille County’s household income averaged $37,400 last year, the third-lowest in the state.

Although job prospects are bleak, Dunn, the assay technician, wants to stay in the area. She grew up in a logging family in Ione, and considers the town of 500 an ideal place to raise teenagers.

“There are only so many places you can go to get into trouble, and growing up here, you know them already,” said Dunn, who sported glittery silver fingernails with her work outfit of hardhat, safety glasses and smudged T-shirt last week. “The nails are zinc,” she joked.

Shawn Volquardsen also plans to remain. “I’ve survived hard times before,” said Volquardsen, the control room operator for the Pend Oreille Mine’s milling operation.

At 33, the father of two has worked a myriad of jobs to stay in the area: firefighter, timber cruiser, laborer, heavy equipment operator.

Loyalty to small-town living breeds that kind of resilience into some local families, said Tara Leininger, the mayor of Metaline Falls, who also serves as a pastor at a Congregational church.

“Some of them are resilient because they’ve been here for 60 years,” she said. “They know that the downturn will not be pretty, and that not everyone will be able to stay.”

She’s hinging her hopes on the president’s economic stimulus package. New bridges and other construction projects would increase demand for steel, and zinc, too. “Then the mine can reopen,” Leininger said.

But her town of 230 is already experiencing an exodus. At the Pend Oreille Apartments, 10 tenants have moved out. Fifteen more gave notice. Building owner Skip Chilberg, who lives in Spokane, plans to transform the 1929 art deco structure into vacation condos for out-of-town residents. Without the mine, rentals aren’t needed, said Chilberg, who runs a real estate firm in addition to serving as Spokane County treasurer.

At the Selkirk School District, Superintendent Nancy Lotze is projecting the loss of 20 students next school year from the mine’s closure. The district has just 300 students. Enrollment has trended downward since the 1990s, when a cement plant and sawmill closed in the area.

In small communities, the loss of each individual is noticeable, Leininger said.

In addition to being a mayor and pastor, she directs two plays each year at Selkirk Junior Senior High School. Leininger has staged performances of “Hamlet” with seven student actors. But this year, only five kids signed up for drama. The best she can pull off is a series of one-act plays.

“This town really needs to figure out what to do with itself,” said Roger Aydelott, 59, owner of the Clark Fork Theatre, a 300-seat movie house in Metaline Falls.

Even if the mine reopens, it’s a temporary solution, Aydelott said. Eventually, the ore will run out. Without new industry, the town’s decline will continue, he said.

But Aydelott, who discovered Metaline Falls during a hitch-hiking trip, knows there aren’t easy answers. The mountains that give Metaline Falls its beauty also isolate the region. Attracting a manufacturer would be difficult, because of the high cost of shipping products out, Aydelott said. The relatively small labor pool also is a deterrent.

“The problem with this area is that there aren’t enough people,” he said. “There’s folks who would argue with me over that. They say it’s ‘so quaint’ and ‘so wonderful’ just like it is. They’re not trying to run a business.”

“If I put every person in Metaline Falls in my theater,” Aydelott said, “I’d still have seats left over.”

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122, or by email at beckyk@spokesman.com.

Idaho’s Silver Valley lost more than 250 mining jobs in the past six months. Mining employment peaked at 789 jobs in August, but fell to 531 by December, said Kathryn Tacke, regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor. In September, the Sunshine Mine ceased operations amid mounting financial troubles, and laid off 90 workers. Other companies, which had expanded aggressively over the past several years, also cut back.


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