North Idaho

Silver Valley surviving Lucky Friday shutdown

WALLACE, Idaho - Businesses are struggling, families are separated and morale is down: Times have been tough in Silver Valley since the Lucky Friday Mine was shut down, but in their darkest hours, there's still faith the community will bounce back.

Last January, Hecla Mining Co. announced the Lucky Friday Mine silver shaft was being shut down, putting 120 people out of work and sending a ripple effect across the valley.

When the mine shut down, it was the time of year when businesses typically slow down. But with the mine remaining closed for the rest of the year, people have had to start reaching out to one another, helping in whatever way they could, even if they were hurting themselves.

Mark Miller has three darling boys, a loving wife and a little girl. He had just bought a minivan and life seemed to be pretty good. Then right before Christmas the unthinkable happened.

Lucky Friday closure Silver Valley impact

"I got laid off just before Christmas. I bought a car two weeks before that. We got laid off. I didn't even make one payment on the minivan yet," Miller said.

Miller worked at Lucky Friday for four years. Like all miners, he's as tough as the rock they dig through. Being a mill worker was not his first job choice but one that paid the bills.

He was there last Dec. 14 when there was a rock burst, injuring seven miners.

"Guys were screaming. It was pretty traumatic. We knew at that point without that hallway there was no ore. There's no mine," he said.

The rock burst was the fifth incident at the mine in 2011, the third involving injuries, including two deaths in separate incidents.

In January, Hecla announced the Mine Safety and Health Administration ordered Lucky Friday shut down in order to remove built up material for safety.

"No idea that they were going to shut us down for a year," Miller said.

The closure put 120 people and up to another 100 contractors out of work.

"How am I going to pay my mortgage?" Miller asked.

The Idaho Department of Labor estimates the closure could cost millions of dollars in lost wages directly and indirectly. At Dirty Ernie's Bar in Kellogg, they've seen business drop off by 10 percent.

"We are working more days a week. We're working six days a week. And trying to do the best we can to keep going and moving," Debbie Cameron at Dirty Ernie's said.In a small town where people know each other by name, the missing faces are obvious.

"We have had a lot of people leave town with the families or leave their families behind," Cameron said.

Some have left Idaho for work; many are separated from their family.

"The families are broken up now, with dad off working and mom trying to keep the family constellation together," Mullan school superintendent Robyn Stanley said.

Stanley says Hecla has supported the Mullan School District through donations; it's harder to ask for money when so many people are out of work.

"The school district is going to be suffering literally for years to make up the loss of revenue for this year," Stanley explained.

Despite the downturn, there is some optimism about the future of the Lucky Friday and the Silver Valley as a whole.

"The Lucky Friday is going to be a stronger mine than it was before. It was a strong mine then and it's going to go on for a long time," Jamie Baker at the Red Light Garage said.

The Red Light Garage is over in Wallace, a town steeped in history. Buildings from the 1800s butt up against a modern day highway, a symbol of sorts that the mining industry historically has had ups and downs and that there's always a future.

"The mining industry; it's been 130 years and it'll be here for another 130 years," Baker said.

The Deroose family is looking past the mine toward tourism as a revenue stream in the Silver Valley. They're opening Silverstreak Zipline tours in June. They plan to hire 30 people, hoping tourists will make the time to take a ride.

"The Silver Valley has gone through troubled times before and we are very resilient here. We will find a way to work," David Deroose said.

Some towns, like Wallace and Kellogg, are trying to market the communities and bring in more tourists by inviting different shows and festivals to the area.

Megaloads are also coming through Wallace now, carrying refinery equipment north to the Alberta oil sands. The people accompanying those loads have brought business to hotels and restaurants, softening the blow of the mine closure.

"This is just one of the bumps in the roads in the mining industry," Baker said.

The community is working together to push through these tough times. After three months of being unemployed, Mark Miller was hired to work at the Galena Mine, where he sees many other former Lucky Friday miners.

It's a job that pays the bills and keeps him close to his family so that he gets to keep playing catch with his boys as many in the Silver Valley wait to see when Lucky Friday opens again.

"I know some guys have made up their minds and said they're not going back," Miller said. "I know some that said they are going back. It's something you have to weigh it out for yourself."

For more than a century people have come and gone, lived through the ups and downs, never giving up on the valuable ore in the hills, never giving up on surviving and always looking for that silver lining.

Hecla Mining Company, meanwhile, says the plan is to restart production at Lucky Friday early in 2013.