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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Blame Game

The valley met news of Lucky Friday's closure with rage and resignation.

"This is federal government arrogance at its height," wrote mining columnist David Bond on silverminers.com. "It is brazen and it reeks of ass-covering."

Meanwhile, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter held a town hall meeting in Wallace. His spokesman, Jon Hanian, said the governor is talking with administration officials about the mine closure but declined to elaborate further.

A Hecla spokeswoman estimated that of the 160 Hecla workers laid off, 60 have been moved to other Hecla mines. Of the about 100 Cementation employees, 50 have been kept on to clean the shaft, and the rest were laid off.

If the layoffs last for a year, unemployment in Shoshone County could exceed 17 percent and the valley could lose $25 million, according to Alivia Metts, a regional economist with the Idaho Department of Labor.

And the number laid off could be larger once contractors and businesses relying on the mine are factored in, though Baker said some will still be employed on the cleaning of the shaft.

In response, the Department of Labor held a job fair several weeks ago. At the door to the gymnasium of the Wallace Junior-Senior High School, two former co-workers crossed paths. They knew each other from Lucky Friday.

"Did you get hired?" Jerry Hagaman yelled to Al Wilks.

"I'm here, aren't I?" Wilks replied.

Inside, a few guys in Carhartt jackets sat on bleachers filling out job applications. On the floor, groups ranging from North Idaho College to the U.S. Army talked to jobseekers. U.S. Silver handed out applications for its positions at Galena. It had already hired seven people. Barrick, another mining company, had also made 19 offers, but that was for a mine in Nevada.

Hagaman ended up landing a job with a contractor at the Star Mine. Wilks, with only 10 months of experience, was having trouble getting work and was looking for guidance at the job fair. Both Wilks and Hagaman are typical of the Silver Valley miner: in it for the money, looking to stay in it, reluctant to leave the valley, accepting of the risks.

"It's safer than it's ever been," Hagaman said of his job for the last six years. "And I would rather die in a rock burst than starve to death."

: This story first appeared in the Feb. 1 edition of The Pacific Northwest Inlander.
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