The Wallace Street Journal – January 16, 2012
By David Bond, Editor Silverminers.com
Just when was it that the United Snakes of America declared war on the Coeur d’Alene Mining District, and why?
We were ruminating, fulminating on these weighty questions last week. Pretty clearly, the opening salvo was fired in the final decade of the 19th Century, when Federal troops were dispatched under a declaration of martial law to lock up 600 miners here who were striking for decent wages.
Then of course during World War II there was the undeclared conscription of lead and zinc miners here who were prevented from taking better paying jobs in the shipyards of Puget Sound to keep wresting rocks from our earth that could be smelted into bullets and cartridges to kill Germans and Japanese.
For that trouble, we were rewarded, in 1984, by being declared a federal Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and we have been struggling under the EPA’s yoke ever since as have some 70 mining companies who produced bullet-makings for the government in the 1940s, most of them mom-and-pop operations. Or was it in 1991, when agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation swooped down upon us, shutting down our card games and seizing our slot machines, in their assault on our laissez-faire way of life?
Was it just last year, when the US EPA sweated a $200 million settlement out of Hecla Mining Co. for alleged “environmental damages” for having the temerity to mine silver, lead and zinc in the Silver Valley? (That amount, ironically, is about what Hecla intends to spend extending the life of the Lucky Friday by some 30 years.)
Or was it just last week, when the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration shuttered the Lucky Friday mine for up to a year on an utterly vacuous claim that is main vertical access way, the Silver Shaft, had miraculously become unsafe overnight? This is the same MSHA that inspects the shaft every three months, most recently a month ago. What changed in 30 days to render the Silver Shaft unserviceable? According to MSHA, 30 years’ accumulation of crud leaking from sand lines that have built up along the mile-deep, 18-foot cylindrical shaft’s concrete liner.
This is federal government arrogance at its height. It is brazen and it reeks of ass-covering. It is also ineptitude at its height, to the detriment of some 200 Hecla Mining Co. employees and a like number of Cementation Corp. contract workers who were at work sinking the new No. 4 Shaft internal winze. As of late last week, Hecla miners were barred by MSHA even from maintaining the critical pumps to keep water out of the lower workings of the Lucky Friday, where most of the machinery is. The 4 Shaft is collared on the 4,900-foot level and most of the current ore hauling was being done on the 5,900-level to the Silver Shaft.
Miners tell this reporter that scaling-off accumulations of sand-line leaks has been an ongoing maintenance procedure since the Silver Shaft – unique to a district where wood-lined, rectangular (and infinitely more maintenance-intensive) shafts are the norm – was commissioned in 1983. Hecla, treading lightly, says it doesn’t consider the MSHA closure order politically motivated. We beg to differ. It is all about politics. In the wake of the April, 2011 death of drift-miner Pete Merek on the 5900-level, MSHA directed Hecla to re-route that heading into uncharted territory. Following MSHA’s orders led to a pair of rock-bursts in November and December last year, the latter of which injured seven men. Our friendly local miners figure that MSHA’s order to close the Silver Shaft is directly connected to its mandated screw-ups on the 5900 essentially to distract attention from the injuries the agency’s order caused. Some early scuttlebutt that MSHA had been pestering Hecla to clean up the Silver Shaft likely is rumour-mongering by the federal agency. But MSHA doesn’t pester: it writes citations, issues orders and demands fines; it doesn’t give advice.
Years ago MSHA was staffed by inspectors who’d spent years underground breaking rock for a living. They knew the art of the possible and the practical, and could with considerable moral authority cite a company that was bending the rules to the detriment of safety. The new breed of cat is different: college boys with little or no experience in the reality of hard-rock mining. The hard-rock miners they are ostensibly there to protect hold their ineptitude and their rule-book rigidity in contempt.
So, 3.5 million ounces of silver production from the Lucky Friday will be held off the books of America’s export balance sheet this year. Our silver consumption will continue at or above its current rate, so we’ll have to import more silver, and print more paper dollars to pay for it – which just drives up the price of milk and gasoline for all of us and the 400-plus miners now on the bricks.
No doubt some Goldman-Sachs-style short-seller made off like a bandit when the MSHA order caused Hecla’s stock to crater from $6 to nearly $4 in a day’s trading last week. Given the cozy cronyism between Wall Street and the United Snakes Government these days, might we wonder if more than just politics were involved?
This wasn’t a war that the hardy people of northern Idaho started, back in the 1890s, or the 1980s, the 1990s, or just last week. We’d rather be known as the culture that brought decent working conditions, women’s suffrage, and other enlightenments to the nation’s conscience. But it is a fight we need to finish, and finish decisively.