The Bedrock of Idaho: Risk vs. Reward in Idaho Mining Country 

The riches of Silver Valley come at a cost, but there's no shortage of people willing to pay

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If It Could Happen to Him

Among miners, Larry Marek was known in one of two ways: either as one of the best miners in the Silver Valley or the best.

"You meet some good miners but not like him," recalled Ron Barrett, a miner who first met Marek at the Sunshine Mine. "You couldn't ask for a better person."

The mustached 53 year old came from a family of miners. Some of his brothers work at Galena. He worked at Lucky Friday, where he was partnered with his brother Mike.

A report produced by the Mine Safety and Health Administration details Larry Marek's last day. On April 15, 2011, he showed up to work the night shift at Lucky Friday. He went down 6,000 feet and, with his brother, found his way to a "stope," the horizontal floors of the mine where most of the blasting and drilling takes place.

Between the natural heat of being deep underground and the equipment used to mine, a stope can be a hot place. Marek set up an air-conditioning system and then started watering down the rock and ore to cool it.

Larry Marek was on the west stope; Mike on the east. Mike looked over at his brother and saw his headlight.

"[Mike] heard the ground caving in over in the west stope and felt a tremendous rush of air," the report reads.

Mike ran to find a pile of rocks where his brother had been. He found a co-worker, told him about the collapse, then ran back to start moving rocks by hand.

There was hope, at first, that Marek was trapped but surviving off the compressed air and water from the drill he was using.

Nine days later, Marek's body was found under a 30-foot-high pile of rocks. The valley mourned.

"Being that it was Larry, I think there was a kind of an attitude of, 'If it could happen to him, it could happen to everyone,'" Barrett said.

Brandon Gray was in the mine when the collapse killed Marek, and he also knew Tim Bush, who died in 2010 at the Galena Mine. But Gray was happy with his new job working for Cementation U.S.A., a contractor hired by Hecla to build a $200 million shaft, said his mother, Laurie Gray.

Brandon also came from a mining family, and his bosses would say, "I think he's going to be a natural," Laurie recalled. She knew the money her son would make. The average miner rakes in $70,000 a year, more than double the average wage of other jobs in the county. But she also understood the risks.

"As a mom of a miner, I always told him I loved him and be safe," before he left for a shift, Laurie said. She did that on Nov. 17, 2011, the last time she saw him.

That day, Brandon was working in a "bin"--a silo where leftover rock and ore from the construction of the shaft were stored. For some reason, the muck underneath his feet started moving, "like the sand in an hourglass," as Baker would later describe.

Brandon was being sucked under by small rock chips, despite his mining partner's attempts to save him, and despite the harness he wore, which Baker said didn't engage because he wasn't moving fast enough.

Brandon was eventually pulled out and taken to the hospital. Two days after the accident, he was taken off life support.

"He was an organ donor," his grandfather, Darrell Gray, said. "So the boy is still alive as far as I'm concerned. He might be in other people, but the man is still alive."

A Mile Down

A few weeks after her son's funeral, Laurie Gray was back in the same gymnasium in Mullan for a Christmas party, when the ground started to rumble.

"We always knew what a rock burst felt like," Laurie recalled. "My heart just dropped."

Over a mile below, Barrett was knocked off his feet. In his nearly 15 years as a miner, he'd heard the loud boom of rock bursts in the distance. But he recalls hearing nothing as he was thrown to the ground and knocked unconscious.

When he woke, he couldn't move. A guy next to him started kicking his own legs free, and Barrett says that he soon found that he, too, could start moving. He wiggled himself out from under the rocks and saw that the six others he was with "were beat up bad."

Since the accident, Barrett has been off work. He walks stiffly. He says the doctors have told him that it's muscle spasms.

Rock bursts like the one that trapped Barrett are among the most uncontrollable hazards underground, said Bennett, the former mining dean.

"You got a mile of rock sitting over the top of you," he said. That means the rocks are under pressure, and when that pressure releases, rocks can literally explode.

On Dec. 14, 2011, the mine had sent Barrett and six others to the area of a previous rock burst to install a culvert intended to further cushion against any further blasts.

Typically, Baker said, rock bursts release stress underground, so having another blast in the same place is unlikely. "For whatever reason, that stress was reintroduced," he said.

Inspectors from MSHA arrived two days after the accident to carry out a "special emphasis" inspection of the mine. Developed after an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners, these inspections "are targeted at mines that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concern," according to Amy Louviere, an administration spokeswoman.

Fifty-nine citations and 16 orders were issued against the mine, Louviere said, 22 of which were against contractor Cementation U.S.A. The citations range from insufficient ground support to unclean work areas.

One of the citations was for sand that had built up on the sides of the main shaft of the mine. The worry is that the sand could build up, break off in chunks and hit a cage going down into the mine, Baker said.

Hecla was told to clean the shaft, and when the administration returned on Jan. 6 to check on the repairs, they told Hecla that the shaft was still not clean and ordered it shut down until it could be cleaned thoroughly.

"This shaft has operated safely for the past 30 years," Baker said. "However, MSHA currently believes that a clean-down from the surface to the bottom is the best way to remove the material that has deposited on the shaft." And that will take until about 2013, he said.

In an email, the administration disputed that it would take a year to clean the shaft.

"While MSHA cannot speculate how long it will take to rehab the mine, the agency does not understand why the operation might be shut down for a year, as the operator has suggested," Louviere wrote in an email. "We understand the economic hardship associated with being out of work, but our primary concern is that no more deaths or serious injuries occur at this mine."

This was not Hecla's first tangle with the mining administration in recent months. In November 2011, the agency released its final report on the death of Larry Marek, faulting Hecla for allowing the stope that Marek was mining to be so close to another stope.

Baker rejects their report.

"The MSHA report, it makes statements, then doesn't provide the information to substantiate their position," he said. He also vows to appeal any citations issued to Hecla.

As a whole, however, the mining industry is becoming safer. The mining administration reports mining deaths in 2011 were at their second-lowest number since 1910.

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