WALLACE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter will ask federal regulators to hold a public meeting in the Silver Valley to explain their decision to shut down the Lucky Friday Mine’s shaft for safety reasons.
“When I get home, that letter will be on its way to Washington, D.C.,” the governor told a standing-room-only crowd Monday during a town hall meeting in Wallace.
Many in the crowd questioned the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s decision to close the shaft, which transports workers and materials to and from the mile-deep silver mine.
Chuck Reitz, a city council member from Mullan, Idaho, said he’s puzzled by the explanations MSHA has given for the Jan. 6 shaft closure. Others noted the shaft had passed other federal safety inspections, which are given four times per year. “There are a lot of inconsistencies, and it doesn’t make sense to us,” Reitz said.
Otter was invited to Wallace to hear local residents’ concerns about the shaft closure. The Lucky Friday is one of the Silver Valley’s largest private employers. The closure, expected to last a year while repairs are made, could result in income losses of $25 million or more for the valley, according to state officials.
Otter expressed support for Hecla Mining Co., which owns the Lucky Friday. “I don’t know if there’s anyone in MSHA that cares more about the safety of those miners than the company itself,” the governor said.
Dave Knapp, a Lucky Friday miner, questioned whether MSHA inspectors were adequately trained to assess conditions in deep, hard-rock mines. “The biggest problem with MSHA is that we know more than they do,” he said.
Jesse Lawder, an MSHA spokesman, said agency officials frequently meet with stakeholder groups to discuss mine safety issues. “We would welcome such an invitation,” he said in an email.
More than 200 employees and contractors will be out of work during the shaft repairs. Hecla officials anticipate reopening the mine in early 2013.
In past interviews, MSHA officials said pipes that transport sand and cement into the mine are leaking, leaving deposits on the shaft’s walls. Some of the material is loose, posing hazards to employees traveling in the shaft, federal regulators said.
The shaft problems were flagged Dec. 20 during a special emphasis inspection, which followed two fatal accidents at the Lucky Friday in 2011 and a rock burst that trapped seven miners. MSHA officials said conditions in the Lucky Friday’s shaft have parallels to problems at a Nevada gold mine, where two workers were killed in the shaft when they tried to unplug a clogged pipe. They were struck by falling pipe and debris.
But Brandon Junso, a mining engineer who works as a consultant, said issues at the two mines are much different. At the Meikle Mine in Nevada, the pipe was four times as large and carried rock, he said. Workers were hitting the pipe to dislodge the material when the pipe burst.
Several audience members urged Otter to hire a state mining inspector, who could mediate in disputes with MSHA. State Reps. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, and Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, have been approached about sponsoring a bill to establish the position, said Reitz, the Mullan council member.
In a later phone interview, Hecla spokeswoman Melanie Hennessey said: “We wouldn’t have operated the shaft if it hadn’t been safe. … But we’re trying to make the best of a challenging situation.”
The company is working on an engineering plan for the shaft repair, which officials expect to release within two weeks. Hecla has been working cooperatively with MSHA to address the issues raised in the closure order so the shaft can reopen “as safely and quickly as possible,” Hennessey said.