December 3, 2011 in City

Report details safety errors in Lucky Friday cave-in

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

A sign for the Lucky Friday Mine is shown posted outside the mine in Mullan, Idaho, in April, when a cave-in killed miner Pete Marek.
(Full-size photo)

Federal mine safety regulators have accused Hecla Mining Co. of safety failures that led to the death of a Lucky Friday miner in April.

Hecla chief executive officer Phil Baker acknowledged Friday afternoon that the mine received four citations and faces nearly $1 million in penalties following the cave-in that crushed miner Larry “Pete” Marek.

An accident report written by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and released by Hecla during a press conference, characterized management as negligent.

The report said the Lucky Friday’s managers put miners at risk by failing to install an adequate ground support system in areas where miners worked and traveled. In addition, management hadn’t tested the stability of the rock where the cave-in occurred, the report said.

“Management did not conduct an evaluation, engineering analysis, or risk assessment to determine the structural integrity of the stope (work area),” according to the report.

Baker said he read the report findings and found “nothing to suggest we haven’t operated in anything but a prudent manner.”

The report and citations tied to the April fatality come just two weeks after an unrelated accident at the Mullan, Idaho, silver mine killed 26-year-old Brandon Gray.

Gray and another miner were working on a muck pile when rock began to flow, a separate report released this week said. Safety harnesses that tethered the men to a wall are designed to lock and then retract to prevent sudden falls, much like seat belts.

The devices, however, did not work in this instance because there was not an immediate jerking motion. Gray was engulfed by the river of rock.

Baker described both accidents as devastating to miners, management and the community.

Two deaths in seven months has shaken the tight-knit mining community of the Silver Valley. Hecla hadn’t had a fatality at its Lucky Friday Mine in 25 years. That’s more than 8 million man hours, Baker said.

While the investigation into Gray’s death is ongoing, Baker said Hecla remains committed to sinking a shaft to enable miners to retrieve ore from depths of nearly 9,000 feet. The new shaft work will cost about $200 million.

He disputed assertions by some in the community that managers were putting miners at risk in pursuit of greater profits.

“If there is anything we want, it is to operate as safely as we can,” he said.

The report showed that management has already made changes to the way it mines in areas where two veins coalesce.

The mining method used where the cave-in occurred “represented a departure from typical mining methods,” the report said. During the cave-in, slabs as large as 10 feet by 10 feet fell. Marek died of blunt force trauma.

His brother, Michael Marek, was on the other end of the work area when the cave-in occurred.

He told investigators that he flagged down a haul truck operator to summon help, then ran back to the cave-in and started moving rocks by hand. A rescue crew arrived 15 minutes later. Larry Marek’s body was recovered after nine days of round-the-clock rescue efforts.

New standards are now in place, including shrinking the width of stopes and implementing new procedures to assign responsibility for examining and testing the condition of the ground to guard against collapse.

Staff writer Becky Kramer contributed to this story.

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