MULLAN, Idaho – A remote-control digger arrived to help rescue workers advance more quickly Monday toward an Idaho silver miner trapped for a third day in one of the nation’s deepest underground mines.
Crews expected the special digger to help as they tried to reach 30-year mining veteran Larry Marek, who was in the Lucky Friday Mine when it collapsed more than a mile underground Friday.
The machine – a front-end loader modified for mining and called a mucker – was expected to move material “without needing all the additional ground support to ensure the safety of our rescue teams,” the company said.
But progress still could be slowed by boulder-sized rocks and the time-consuming work of shoring up tunnels from further collapse.
“In the meantime, rescue crews continue to safely advance and progress on the removal of material,” mine owner Hecla Mining said.
The Lucky Friday Mine is tucked into the forested mountains of Mullan, a historic mining town of 840 people in Idaho’s panhandle. Like mining areas around the world, it’s not immune to accidents, some of them tragic.
Last June, a miner was killed in the Galena Mine in nearby Silverton after a rock slab fell on him.
And in 1972, 91 miners were killed in a terrible fire about 3,700 feet underground inside the Sunshine Mine between Kellogg and Wallace.
Officials do not know Marek’s condition, and they have not had contact with him since the roof of the mining tunnel collapsed about 5:30 p.m. Friday.
The company delayed a news release several hours Monday as it gathered information about the latest stage of rescue operations.
The remote mucker can move between one to 3 1/2 yards of rock material at a time, but workers still need to shore up the excavated area behind it with timber.
A spokeswoman with mine owner Hecla said that “timbering” the mine was a time-consuming safety measure.
Hecla Mining is in the midst of expanding the historic Lucky Friday Mine in the Silver Valley as silver prices have soared about 38 percent this year. The company is spending $200 million to increase silver production by about 60 percent and extend the mine life beyond 2030.
Marek and his brother, another mine worker, had just finished watering down blasted-out rock and ore on existing mining areas when the collapse occurred about 75 feet from the end of the 6,150-foot deep tunnel, according to the company. Marek became trapped but his brother escaped.
Officials say it’s unclear if the entire 75-foot section collapsed, or only a portion of it, possibly leaving the miner trapped on the other side.
Hecla said all mining activity has been halted for the rescue effort. Officials said they will focus on how the collapse occurred once the rescue is complete.
The mine employs roughly 275 workers, about 50 of whom were underground in various parts of the mine when the collapse occurred, company spokeswoman Melanie Hennessey said.
On its website, Hecla describes itself as the oldest U.S.-based precious metals mining company in North America and the largest silver producer in the U.S. It is headquartered in Coeur d’Alene.
Hecla currently produces silver from two mines, Greens Creek and Lucky Friday, a mine that has been operational since 1942.
Hecla appears to have a good record of health and safety at Lucky Friday.
There have been no fatalities dating back to 2000, according to a Mine Safety and Health Administration database. The federal regulator has cited the mine for violations, but none in the last year specifically tied to the kind of accident that occurred Friday.
In 2009, the company agreed to pay $177,500 in fines for violating federal clean water laws at Lucky Friday. EPA investigators said the mine exceeded discharge levels for metals such as lead, zinc, cadmium and suspended solids between September 2008 and February 2009. Discharges flow into the South Fork Coeur d’Alene River above the town of Mullan.
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