Poor mining practices, inadequate oversight preceded miner's death

Sep 19, 2011

COEUR d’ALENE, Idaho – It's been five months since a rockfall at the Lucky Friday Mine in north Idaho killed veteran miner Larry Marek. Much about the accident is still unknown. But public records going back several years suggest the federal agency that oversees mines did not adequately ensure the safety of workers at the Lucky Friday.

A 2008 report on another collapse there went missing. And since Larry Marek’s death, inspectors have found a dramatically higher number of safety violations.

The daily hum of activity at the Lucky Friday Mine usually echos across the mountains of north Idaho. But for several tense days in April all was quiet. Mining stopped while rescue crews cut through more than 200 feet of rock trying to reach 53-year-old Larry Marek. It took more than a week before they recovered his body, a mile underground, crushed by rocks.

Five months later, the details of what led to Marek's death are starting to emerge. Mining experts I spoke to say the hazardous conditions in that tunnel could have been avoided. Those experts are privy to the details of the investigation, but spoke on the condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to discuss the incident.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration would not comment on the accident until the investigation report is issued.

But here’s what we know from the experts and public documents:

  • 1) Marek was working in an unusually wide stope. That's the opening where miners extract the silver ore.
  • 2) The stope was located near an intersection of veins. And where veins intersect, the roof of the open space can become unstable.

Davitt McAteer was the Clinton administration's assistant secretary of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. He says mine managers should have known the danger.

“It's a well known phenomenon that anomalies – like the intersection of veins or the intersection of faults – tend to create weaknesses in the geology in a mining's process," McAteer says. "So it's not as though they've discovered something unusual.”

I wanted to understand why this was an unstable situation. So I turned to Tom Brady. He’s a retired engineer from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the mine division. He says the piece of rock in between where two veins meet carries all the weight of the rock above it. Brady explains it like this:

“It's sort of like if you have an acrobat and a 240-pound man stands on your shoulders and his brother stands on his shoulders ...”

In fact, imagine more than a mile's worth of 240-pound men. Now add sumo wrestlers pushing on the acrobat’s shoulders from the side. Brady says a wide stope – more than 20 feet of open space – underneath the acrobat makes the situation even more unstable.

“At some point, the stress of the ground will overcome the stress of the rock and cause it to actually blow out (claps) and come down on our miners,” Brady says.

In fact, a wide stope and an unstable wedge of rock had been factors in a collapse at the Lucky Friday Mine before, but no one was there. It was in 2008, three years before Larry Marek’s death. According to a federal report on the fall, “Had it occurred a few hours earlier or later, it is likely that a fatality or fatalities could have resulted.”

Helca Mining’s spokeswoman Melanie Hennessey wouldn’t comment specifically on the accident that killed Marek, but she says it was different from the one in 2008.

“It's comparing apples and oranges,” she says.

The 2008 incident involved intersecting faults, not veins. But the federal geologist who wrote the report made recommendations to address a couple of key points that are relevant to Larry Marek’s death. The report recommended the mine keep stopes narrow and reinforce unstable rocks like the ones created at intersecting veins and faults. Those are the “acrobats” that Brady referred to.

But it appears the 2008 report was never given to the mining company.

“We had not seen this report prior to when you provided it to us,” Hecla spokeswoman Melanie Hennessey told me.

I obtained the document through a Freedom of Information Act request. But there are no records that the report ever left the MSHA office in Vacaville, Calif.

Davitt McAteer, the former MSHA official, says the agency is supposed to follow up on the recommendations of these technical documents.

“You don't do these investigations just for the sake of science. They do it to prevent exactly what happened here – a fatal accident," McAteer says. "The failure to circulate the document is just simply flabbergasting.”

Now, it's not clear whether the 2008 report would have saved Marek's life. Hennessey says the company has independently taken the precautions the report suggests – including establishing 15 feet as the standard stope width.

However, according to Marek's daughter and sources familiar with the investigation, Marek was in a stope that was 25 feet wide. And according to federal records, investigators have since cited “serious” violations of how the mine supports the roof of openings in the mine.

In fact, 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.

We contacted MSHA to pose that question to them. A spokeswoman said no one was available to do an interview. In an email she wrote, “all we can say is, when an inspector finds a violation, he cites that violation.”

Hecla says there's a lot more metal to be mined at the Lucky Friday. With silver at record prices, the company plans to deepen the mine to 9,000 feet below the surface.

Davitt McAteer, formerly with MSHA, says Marek's death shows that the mine can't rely on the federal government to catch problems.

“Does the company have a responsibility in this instance? Absolutely," says McAteer. "It's their responsibility first and foremost. They have their own engineers, they have their own people, they should know what they're doing.”

In all the attention to the Lucky Friday Mine, Larry Marek’s family has stayed largely silent, until recently. His daughter Hayley wrote online that she believes unsafe conditions at the mine led to her father’s death.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network