Last week’s violent rock burst at the Hecla Mining’s Lucky Friday mine was just one of several catastrophic events this year at the deep underground silver mine in Mullan, Idaho. Another rockburst occurred a month earlier, and just one day before another incident in which 26 year old Brandon Gray was engulfed in muck as he and a co-worker tried to dislodge it in excavation bin. Mr. Gray, a contractor employed by Cementation, Inc., died two days later.
Brandon Gray’s death was the second this year at the Lucky Friday mine. In April, Larry “Pete” Marek, 53, and his brother Michael Marek were working the afternoon shift together at Lucky Friday at a depth of about 6,000 feet. The stope (a tunnel-like opening) caved in completely on Mr. Marek. It took nine days to recover his body. In addition to investigating the circumstances leading to Mr. Marek’s death, the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) also conducted an audit of the employer’s accident and injury records. They identified 12 serious incidents in which the employer failed to prepare a simple written investigation report, including the steps taken to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
The mine operator’s failure to record and follow-up on accident investigation reports caught my attention, especially after learning from public radio KUOW reporter Jessica Robinson that MSHA also failed to follow-up on its own report about hazards at the Lucky Friday mine. She reported that in December 2008, an MSHA geologist warned that the strata throughout the Lucky Friday mine made it prone to rockbursts and falls of back. His assessment came following a catastrophic ground failure or rockburst in October 2008 that could have resulted in loss of life. (I could not find a record of this reportable incident in MSHA’s on-line data system.) The MSHA geologist prepared his report at the request of MSHA’s Western District office and delivered it in December 2008. It contained eight recommendations. Hecla Mining told KUOW’s Robinson that it never received a copy of the report.
One of the geologist’s recommendations from 2008 reads:
“A maximum allowable stope width should be established. Criteria…should take into account the potential for wedge failure as well as rock burst potential. An ultimate stope width should be established regardless of ground conditions….”
Two and a half years later, this same geologist was part of the team investigating the fatal cave-in (fall of back) that killed Mr. Marek. In that fatality investigation report, the agency indicates:
“Management did not conduct an evaluation, engineering analysis, or risk assessment to determine the structural integrity of the stope back.”
In the section of the report in which MSHA indicates how the hazard was corrected, I read this haunting phrase:
“Management developed and implemented new ground control standards that prohibit mining under intervening waste pillars and also established a maximum stope width”..
Why wasn’t a maximum stope width instituted at the Lucky Friday mine in response to the MSHA geologist’s recommendation in 2008? How would the lives of the Marek family and his co-workers be different had a maximum stope width standard been implemented two years earlier.
MSHA has a standard on the books requiring a mine operator to implement a rockburst prevention plan after experiencing one of these events. Did Lucky Friday management refuse to include a maximum stope width in its prevention plan?
Did MSHA assess the adequacy of the Lucky Friday’s rockburst prevention plan following each of the incidents that occurred after the October 2008 event? If the mine operator’s plan was inadequate, such as, it failed to include a maximum stope width, why didn’t MSHA issue citations regarding it?
The law is clear that the primary responsibility for worker safety resides with the mine operator, and Hecla Mining is being scrutinized for its deadly safety failures at Lucky Friday. I wonder if MSHA’s performance should also be evaluated to determine if more could have been done to prevent the hazards that took the lives of two men and potentially put hundreds of others at risk.