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Federal Probe Leads To Year-Long Shutdown Of Lucky Friday Mine

Jessica Robinson


In the midst of the biggest silver boom in years, one of the most productive silver mines in the country is being shut down. Federal investigators say the main shaft into the Lucky Friday Mine in north Idaho is unsafe for workers. A series of tragic accidents last year prompted greater federal scrutiny of conditions at the mine.

Hecla Mining CEO Phil Baker appeared before reporters in the lobby of the company’s headquarters in Coeur d’Alene.

“We believe that the shaft is safe,” he said.

But federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors disagree. They say there's loose cement debris on the walls of the shaft. Hecla’s Phil Baker says the agency issued an order that his company clean the mile-deep shaft from top to bottom.

“When we consider the process, we view the mine as having to be shut down for a period of roughly a year,” he says.

In 2011, two miners died in separate accidents at the Lucky Friday Mine near Mullan, Idaho. Then in December a tunnel collapse put seven miners in the hospital.

Shortly after, federal regulators started a so-called “Special Emphasis” investigation. It's resulted in 80 citations, and 15 orders at the Lucky Friday. One of those orders says the shaft that serves as the main entrance and exit from the mine is hazardous.

“I think we have a very good safety program," Baker says. "But yes we will take the time to reemphasize safety.”

However, a representative of the United Steelworkers Union expressed concerns about safety standards at the mine. The union representative didn't want us to use his name because of sensitivity surrounding the issue. He says miners employed by Hecla have noted safety problems in the shaft that they say the company has failed to address.

The shutdown means 185 miners and up to 100 contract workers may be laid off.

Mullan City Councilman Sam Davis says they've already started to see some miners leave the community.

“So it's kind of half and half there I guess. You want it to be safe but you want jobs, you know. It's going to affect a lot of people,” Davis says.

Hecla says it may be able to employ some of the north Idaho miners at another mine in Alaska.

The company is considering appealing the order. Even so, company president Phil Baker says the $20 million shaft clean up project will likely start in about three weeks.

On the Web:

Hecla Mining statement:

Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network