Coal Tattoo

Why inspectors might hesitate to shut down a mine

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Idaho Gov. Butch Otter waits for the commencement of a town hall meeting Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 in Wallace, Idaho where residents and business owners sought answers about the recent Lucky Friday Mine closure. (AP Photo/Coeur d’Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos)

After 29 miners died in April 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine here in West Virginia, a lot of people — including the local political leadership — made a lot of noise asking why, if conditions were so bad at Upper Big Branch, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors didn’t shut the place down. Well, if you really wonder about the answer to that question, look no farther than what’s going on right now out in Idaho, where the local media and the governor are raising quite a stink over closure of the much-troubled Lucky Friday silver mine.

Here’s the latest news from The Associated Press:

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter plans to ask federal regulators to hold a town hall meeting in northern Idaho and further explain the decision to close one of the nation’s deepest underground mines for safety reasons.

Otter traveled Monday to Wallace to discuss the closure of the Lucky Friday Mine earlier this month and economic conditions in the depressed Silver Valley region, where dozens of workers recently received a pink slip.

There was standing room only as Otter held a public meeting Monday in Wallace to discuss the shutdown of the mine with local families and business owners. Otter said he would ask federal mine regulators to hold a public meeting in the Silver Valley to further explain their decision.

“When I get home, that letter will be on its way to Washington, D.C.,” said Otter, who has also met with Hecla representatives to discuss the closure.

What exactly is MSHA up to here?

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration ordered the operation closed following an investigation prompted by a series of accidents that killed two miners over the last year. The agency ordered Hecla Mining Co. for safety reasons to scrub the walls of the mile-deep shaft that is the main entrance to the mine.

Federal inspectors determined that sand and concrete material that had leaked from a pipe into a mine shaft over the years needed to be removed. The material is in the mile-deep Silver Shaft, the mine’s main access shaft, and workers will spend the next year essentially power washing the material from the walls of the shaft.

The shaft problems were flagged during a Dec. 20 inspection following two fatal accidents and a rock burst that trapped seven miners.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s closure order was initially issued Jan. 5, but Hecla officials said Jan. 11 that they had been negotiating for several days with federal regulators before resigning themselves to the lengthy shutdown.

In this file photo from Thursday, April 28, 2011, Sol Sandberg, a miner at the Lucky Friday Mine, holds his son Jimmy, 19 months, as they leave the memorial service for Larry Marek at Kellogg High School in Kellogg, Idaho. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is investigating the mine after a series of accidents killed two miners past year. In mid-December, seven miners were injured in a rock burst at the mine. (AP Photo/Coeur d’Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos)

Only this week, MSHA had this to say about Lucky Friday after a blitz inspection at the operation:

MSHA conducted an impact inspection Dec. 16-23 at Hecla Limited’s Lucky Friday Mine in Shoshone County, Idaho. Inspectors issued 59 citations and 15 orders to Hecla Ltd. and 22 citations to Cementation USA Inc., an independent contractor.

Among the violations cited was a repeated failure to maintain established ground support systems throughout the mine. In addition, ground support fixtures in several areas had not been installed or torqued properly; shafts had not been systematically inspected, tested and maintained, and steel structures in the shaft were not kept clean of hazardous materials; multiple areas of the mine had not been provided with two separate escapeways; explosives magazines had not been constructed and located to protect miners from the risk of unintended explosions; underground shop doors were improperly constructed to ensure fire protection; elevated walkways in multiple areas were not provided with substantially constructed handrails; and travel areas were not kept clean and orderly, resulting in slip, trip and fall hazards.

Two miners died at Lucky Friday Mine in 2011. In December, seven miners were trapped underground when a roof fall occurred, three of whom required hospitalization.

Of course, it doesn’t help the situation here that apparently MSHA hadn’t previously done what you might call a stellar job at Lucky Friday, at least from what local public broadcasting has reported:

… Federal mining inspectors have found a lot of safety violations at the Lucky Friday Mine since the rockfall that killed Larry Marek. Two months after the accident MSHA inspectors found 70 health and safety violations. The month before, they found eight.

Celeste Monforton is a former MSHA policy adviser. She notes that in March, before the accident, two inspectors spent 46 hours at the Lucky Friday Mine during the routine inspection. After the accident in June, five inspectors spent more than 300 hours.

“And when I see something like that, one can’t help but wonder whether whether those deficiencies existed on the previous inspection and they just weren’t observed,” says Monforton.

When overlooking safety problems or going easy on companies in the name of jobs or “compliance assistance” becomes routine, it’s no wonder the workers and the local political leadership (not to mention most of the media) react this way when MSHA comes in and actually does its job. But it’s maddening that politicians don’t understand the connection between their constant fist-pounding about protecting the mining industry from regulators and safety inspectors hesitating to shut down a mine. That doesn’t stop those same politicians from pounding their fists on the table just as hard after miners die in a disaster.

So ask yourself: What would Sen. Joe Manchin or Rep. Nick Rahall have said on April 4, 2010, if MSHA had shut down Upper Big Branch?