September 17, 2011 in Idaho

Mine death put on bosses

Managers’ negligence endangered workers, federal agency report says
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Unsafe work practices caused the cave-in that killed an employee at the Lucky Friday Mine in April, federal investigators have concluded.

Larry “Pete” Marek was buried in a 25-foot-high rock pile when his work area collapsed. The integrity of a rock pillar that had provided ground support was compromised when the pillar was mined for its silver ore, according to a report by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The Lucky Friday’s managers engaged in “aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence” by directing the pillar to be mined as workers advanced along the mineral vein, which put the miners in harm’s way, the MSHA report said.

Although other ground support was in place, the report said it wasn’t adequate to support the opening after the pillar was removed.

The debris pile from the falling rock measured 74 feet long, 25 feet high and 10 feet wide. Rescue workers searched for nine days before they recovered Marek’s body. Their efforts were hampered by unstable, overhead rock.

MSHA’s investigation into the fatality is continuing, but a government database indicates that Hecla Mining Co. was cited for unsafe ground conditions at the Lucky Friday in subsequent inspections during May, June and August. No penalties have been assessed yet.

Melanie Hennessey, a Hecla spokeswoman, declined to comment on the citations. Per company policy, Hecla won’t respond publicly to allegations of unsafe working conditions until MSHA issues a final investigation report, she said.

Marek, 53, was a longtime Silver Valley miner who was wetting down his work area to control dust and cool the rock when the April 15 collapse occurred. The falling rock separated Marek from his brother, who was his mining partner. Mike Marek survived.

Rescue efforts attracted national attention, with family, friends and co-workers holding out hope that Marek might have survived, trapped behind the rockfall in an air pocket. Hundreds of people later attended Marek’s memorial service in the Kellogg High School gym, where he was remembered as a model miner, devoted family man and avid elk hunter.

The Lucky Friday Mine near Mullan, Idaho, employs about 275 workers in addition to contract crews who are sinking a new shaft that will lower the mine to depths of nearly 9,000 feet. The new shaft will prolong the mine’s life and allow the company to access richer ore, Hecla officials have said.


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