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News >  Idaho

Four miners sue Hecla Mining Co. over 2011 underground ordeal

Four miners who were trapped and injured two years ago during a rock burst at the Lucky Friday Mine are suing Hecla Mining Co., alleging that mine managers knowingly sent them into unsafe working conditions.

On Dec. 14, 2011, Ronnel E. Barrett, Gregg Hammerberg, Eric J. Tester and Matthew Williams were part of a team of seven miners sent to repair damage from an earlier rock burst when another occurred, according to the lawsuit. The sudden, violent failure of a supporting rock pillar trapped them 5,900 feet below the surface.

The four miners are seeking more than $1 million for injuries, medical treatment and lost wages, to be proved at a jury trial.

In addition to Hecla, the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Idaho’s 1st District Court names Jeff Jordan, the Lucky Friday’s mine manager; Doug Bayer, mine superintendent; and Scott Hogamier, the safety foreman.

Mike Westerlund, Hecla’s vice president of investor relations, said he hadn’t seen the suit and couldn’t comment.

The lawsuit accuses Hecla and its managers of ignoring escalating incidents of rock bursts and failing to take measures to protect workers at the underground silver mine in Mullan, Idaho.

The Lucky Friday experienced a string of rock bursts starting in the latter half of 2010, the lawsuit said.

In April 2011, Larry “Pete” Marek, a miner with more than 20 years of experience, was killed in a massive rockfall at the mine. Rescue crews worked around the clock to remove debris, reaching Marek’s body nine days later.

Another rock burst occurred in the same area of the mine on Nov. 16, 2011. Though no workers were injured, the rock burst registered as a 2.8-magnitude quake on seismographs, and residents as far away as Wallace reported feeling the earth rumble.

According to the suit, Hecla’s managers knew from two consultants’ reports that the area remained unsafe but lied to workers who were sent to install a steel liner to stabilize the rock a month later.

Quoting the consultants’ reports, the lawsuit says rock pressure was continuing to build up from mining activity below the area; that the supporting pillar was “still under stress”; and that further rock bursts were likely.

However, the miners were told that the pillar was safe to work around, the suit says. They were specifically told that a consultant had said another rock burst wouldn’t occur for five years and that the pillar was continuously monitored for increased rock pressure, according to the suit.

Hecla had stopped monitoring the pillar and was violating an order from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to cease mining operations until the repairs were done, the suit says.

After the miners were injured in the rock burst, a federal mine inspection team was dispatched to the Lucky Friday, leading to citations for safety violations.

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