Conditions in the Lucky Friday Mine’s main shaft have parallels to problems at a Nevada gold mine where a 2010 shaft accident claimed the lives of two workers, a top official at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said Thursday.
During recent visits to the underground silver mine in Mullan, Idaho, federal inspectors became concerned about workers’ safety “because of conditions in that shaft,” said Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.
“We’re not in the business of putting miners out of work; we’re in the business of making sure that the conditions they work in are safe,” Main said.
Last week, MSHA closed the mile-deep shaft until repairs are made. Officials at Hecla Mining Co., which operates the Lucky Friday, said it will take about 12 months to clean and repair the shaft. The mine will shut down during that time, resulting in layoffs for more than 200 employees and contractors.
Phil Baker, Hecla’s chief executive officer, said Wednesday that company officials believe the shaft is safe. However, federal inspectors found loose rock in the Lucky Friday’s shaft and several leaks in a pipe that transports sand and cement into the mine, said Neal Merrifield, MSHA’s administrator for metal and non-metal safety.
“Our concern is that we really don’t have a good idea about the total condition of that pipe,” he said, speaking on the phone with Main.
If the pipe were to burst, or if concrete deposits from the leaks were to tear loose from the shaft’s walls, workers traveling in the shaft could be killed, Merrifield said.
“You can imagine what would happen if one of these rocks would fall 6,000 feet and hit somebody or strike the cage,” Merrifield said.
The situation at the Lucky Friday’s shaft is similar, though not identical, to the 2010 accident at Barrick Gold’s Meikle Mine in Nevada, he said.
In that accident, two workers were trying to unplug a pipe in the mine shaft. The 24-inch pipe burst and the falling pipe and other debris struck and killed the workers, the accident report said.
“I don’t think that you’d be riding down an elevator shaft with the kinds of conditions that we are talking about, that our folks have identified,” Main said. “Think about going down an elevator shaft with looming pieces of material (overhead) or a long stretch of pipe that could break loose.”
The Dec. 20 inspection that flagged problems at the Lucky Friday’s shaft was a “special emphasis” inspection developed by MSHA after the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia in 2010. Mines with recent accidents and fatalities get additional attention from inspectors.
The Lucky Friday fits that category, Main said. “Keep in mind, this mine had two fatal accidents in the last year. In addition, they had a major rock burst that could have resulted in seven additional fatalities,” he said.
Main said that MSHA has asked Hecla to submit a plan for correcting problems in the shaft.
Mélanie Hennessy, Hecla’s spokeswoman, said Thursday night the citation that MSHA issued on the Lucky Friday shaft only referred to loose concrete deposits. “The other information is new to us,” she said. In a press conference Wednesday, Hecla’s Baker said the company anticipates spending 12 months power washing the shaft’s walls to remove concrete deposits, which he said are up to a couple of inches thick. He said the shaft is inspected weekly by Hecla officials, and he’s only aware of one worker being struck by falling material in the shaft. That worker received a cut, he said.
Hecla is evaluating whether it will appeal the closure order, Baker said.