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Feds close Lucky Friday mine for a year

Federal regulators have closed Lucky Friday Mine in northern Idaho for the rest of the year.   Well over 200 employees and contractors will be displaced, Hecla Mining Co. officials said Jan. 11.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has been investigating the mine near Mullan. Two miners were killed in accidents in the past year, and seven were injured in December in a rock burst. The mine has been closed since mid-December.

Alivia Body, Idaho Department of Labor regional economist for the state’s northern Panhandle, said the department was meeting Jan. 11 with mine employees and administrators.

“It’s definitely huge for the Silver Valley,” she said. “The unemployment rate at this point probably will jump above 16 percent.”

Unemployment in rural Shoshone County was 13 percent in November, the most recent figure available as of Jan. 11.

“These are good-paying jobs, so obviously it will be a very large impact,” Body said.

The federal agency ordered the mine’s Silver Shaft to be closed for removal of built-up material, pursuant to the investigation that followed the Dec. 14 rock burst, Hecla announced.

The order is not specifically related to the rock burst, President and CEO Phil Baker said in a Jan. 11 conference call. Lucky Friday had a hauling route through a vein it had mined around, creating a pillar. Hecla planned to build a bypass around the pillar but could not predict when a burst would happen, he said.

Construction of the bypass is now on hold, as well as construction of an additional shaft, Hecla announced.

Sand and concrete material to be removed from the shaft has built up since the mine’s completion in 1983, Hecla officials said.

Investigators issued a citation ordering cleanup of loose material in the mile-deep Silver Shaft, Baker said. They later concluded further cleanup was needed, and Hecla did not meet the deadline, Baker said.

MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said the agency on Dec. 20 issued two citations in the Silver Shaft, which is the mine’s primary shaft. One citation was for loose material and one was for not making examinations, she said.

On Jan. 6, MSHA inspectors conducted an examination after the company said corrections had been made. “After a few hundred feet, it became obvious the hazards still existed,” she said.

Closing the Silver Shaft leaves Lucky Friday with only one entrance, so the whole mine must close during the cleanup, Baker said. Hecla could file an administrative appeal, he said.

The company is working with Idaho agencies to help workers displaced by the closure, many of whom likely will be called back to work after the cleanup, Baker said.

About 275 people work at Lucky Friday. Well over 200 employees and contractors are affected, he said. Hecla believes the cleanup does not pose a hazard to the mine’s maintenance workers, he said.

As for Hecla, the company will continue to produce silver, and cash flow, from its Greens Creek mine, Baker said.

“What (the closure) primarily does is delay access to higher-grade, deeper material,” he said.

Last month’s rock burst was the latest in a string of incidents at the mine in Idaho’s Silver Valley, about 50 miles east of Coeur d’Alene.

Miner Brandon Lloyd Gray, 26, was buried in rubble while trying to dislodge jammed rock on Nov. 17, and died two days later. On April 15, miner Larry “Pete” Marek was crushed when his work area collapsed. Federal inspectors found company safety failures led to his death.

Prior to last year, the mine had gone 25 years without a fatality.

Hecla stock closed Jan. 11 at $4.61, down $1.23 or 21.06 percent for the day. The previous one-year low was $4.82. The high in the past year is $11.08.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report

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