April 19, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 4Comment

[Updated 4/21/2011 below]
[Updated 4/25/2011 below]

Deep in the Bitterroot Mountains of the Idaho panhandle, mine rescue teams are working around the clock to locate Larry “Pete” Marek, 53. Marek and his brother were working in Hecla Mining’s Lucky Friday silver mine on Friday afternoon (4/15) when the roof collapsed. His brother Mike escaped, but Larry Marek did not. The “fall of ground” occurred in an area 6,150 feet below the surface in a silver vein that runs 2200 feet, according to information released by the company. Mine rescue teams are using heavy equipment to remove the fallen material and install supplemental supports to prevent further cave-ins. As of 1:00 pm EST on 4/19, no information about the incident appears on the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s website; the mine operator Hecla Mining provides updates on its homepage.

Falls of ground are not uncommon in the Lucky Friday mine. According to incident reports available on MSHA’s website, on March 4 a 10’X8’X6′ slab of rock fell in an area where miners were working, but no one was injured. In November, a rockburst occurred while workers were blasting and it released material covering a 6’X14’X8′ area and blocked an underground roadway. Three more rockbursts occurred in August and September 2010, again with no injuries. Rock bursts are like an explosion of rock, and occur as pressure builds in the strata. In mining regions with deep hardrock mines, operators can monitor pressure and can destress the pressure with drill holes and other techniques. Hecla Mining has been referring to Friday’s event as a fall of ground, not a rockburts, perhaps relying on the brother Mike Marek’s eyewitness account.

Under the Mine Act, underground mines must be inspected at least four times per year by federal mine inspectors. The last quarterly inspection at the Lucky Friday mine began on February 28 and ended on March 3. The mine operator was cited for four violations and a contractor, Cementation USA, who is involved in installing a new shaft, also received four citations. The violations related to ground support, fire protection, machine guarding, and fall protection. The three previous quarterly inspections resulted in 14, 4 and 9 violations, respectively; for the most part, the $10,000 in annual penalties assessed have been paid by Hecla Mining. I can’t help but notice the contrast in the number of citations issued at this underground hardrock mine, compared to, say Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine (UBB). UBB had been cited for that many violations in a single day, and racked up $1.5 million in penalties. Could Hecla be an example of a mine operator that successfully integrates safety and production?

The Lucky Friday mine’s safety philosphy, developed collaboratively by management and members of Steelworkers Local 5114, is more than the popular “behavior based safety” (BBS) approach. According to BBS, if workers just stopped “unsafe acts,” injuries and property damage wouldn’t occur. Informed workers and managers know better (more here and here.) Unlike BBS’s blame the worker philosophy, the Lucky Friday’s safety principles include this:

* All accidents/injuries can be prevented.
* Management is responsible for preventing injuries.
* Working safely is a condition of employment.
* All operating exposures can be safeguarded.
* Training employees to work safely is essential.
* Prevention of personal injuries [e.g., at home, in cars] is good business.

Prior to this incident, Jesse Tinsley of The Spokesman-Review produced an audio slideshow with photos from inside the hardrock mine as workers prepare to sink a new shaft. If you’ve been watching the Spike TV series “Coal,” you’ll see a huge difference between this hardrock mine, and the low-coal mine in McDowell County, West Virginia. The Lucky Friday mine extracts and processes silver ,which is currently trades at $40 per ounce. Lucky Friday’s 275 workers are credited with extracting about 3 million ounces annually from the mine.

In 1999 I visited the Lucky Friday mine. Unlike underground coal mines with mechanical ventilation, there was no breeze in the air; it felt like a humid construction site with a fine white dust in the air. The working areas were illuminated with bright flood lighting so you didn’t have to rely on a skimpy cap lamp to light your path. Most memorable was watching a miner operate a jack leg drill. He had arms like Hercules and needed them to lift the 80 lbs piece of equipment above his shoulders to reach his drilling targets. When he asked me “want to try it?” I couldn’t resist, but embarrassed myself because I couldn’t even lift the drill’s unwieldy air leg. Fritz Wolff’s autobiography of his summer working in a hardrock mine offers a colorful description of trying to work the drill. Like Fritz, my Hercules at the Lucky Friday mine made it look easy. Not only couldn’t I operate it, I couldn’t stand the noise. It was the loudest, full body assault of noise that I’ve every experienced, and it bounced back and forth, up and down from the rock walls, floor and roof. Enforcement data on MSHA’s website indicates excessive noise continues to be a problem for workers in some areas of the mine, but curiously, I didn’t see any dosimetry measurements for workers operating the jackleg drill.

The latest word on the rescue is that ground conditions in the mine have deteriorated and “rescue teams will start trying to access the tunnel with a drift from another ramp.” Remote-controlled mucking machines, which work like a front-end loader, are being used to try to clear the fallen material and reach the area where Larry “Pete” Marek is located. This heavy equipment and other machinery generates a lot of noise. If Mr. Marek is alive and waiting for the tons of rock to be cleared, I’m sure the noise is music to his ears.

[Update 4/21/2011, 10:00 pm EST]: Efforts to locate Larry “Pete” Marek in the Lucky Friday silver mine continue. Let’s hope that tomorrow Friday 4/22 is indeed lucky for him and the crews conducting the search. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Jessica Robinson continues to follow the story and reports today on the mine’s reliance on “Decades Old Communication Technology.”

[Update 4/25/2011, 8:00 am EST]: The body of Larry “Pete” Marek was located on Sunday morning April 24 by mine rescue teams. Information about the incident is now posted on MSHA’s website.

4 thoughts on “Search continues for Idaho silver mine worker, one mile deep underground

  1. MSHA typically does not do updates on single fatalities nor missing miners.

    Kenneth Stephens body has been missing since December 23, 2010 when a an area at the blast site collapsed into a water-filled pit and on April 12, the mine operator, Mid-Coast Aggregates, officially stopped recovery efforts, and his wife notified. The company removed an estimated 60,000 tons of material during this effort.

    A sad 7 weeks for his family, friends and co-workers, but most people would not know.

  2. Ellen,
    You are absolutely correct. MSHA doesn’t do updates on single fatalities or missing miners. I think they should. I appreciate that Hecla Mining is providing updates, but as we recall from Crandall Canyon, there’s a reason that MSHA should also provide status reports.

    I had no idea that Mr. Stephen’s body had not been recovered and the recovery effort continued until just last week. Indeed, except for his family and community, (and MSHA) most people do not know that awful news.


  3. Sorry to intrude, but: “Idaho silver mine worker“??
    What, did one of the company’s accountants get lost? Did they send a cleaner in to do a bit of dusting? Perhaps it was one of the company’s parking officers making sure no illegal underground parking was taking place? * – Dingo
    * What’s wrong with ‘Idaho miner’?

  4. DingoJack,
    I intentionally put “silver miner” in the title because in my experience living in the eastern US, when some people see “miner” they automatically think coal miner.

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