Mining in the Silver Valley
In Idaho's fabled Silver Valley, large corporations have been perfecting the art of underground mining since the 1890's. The work of Idaho's silver miners truly staggers the imagination. Miners have extracted more than a billion ounces of silver, making this one of the top two silver producing regions in the world.
But that silver extraction did not come without a price. The battles between mine workers and mine owners were some of the nation's most explosive examples of class warfare.
When the price of silver dropped to around $3 an ounce in the early 1980's, most of the mining stopped. And the towns of Kellogg and Wallace were left with a century of heavy metal pollution on their door steps, marking it as one of the largest Superfund sites in the nation.
But that's all old news to the young miners working 3,000 feet underground, in the Galena Mine.
"The money is very substantial," explains Kenneth Snyder, a third generation miner. "With the prices we have now, this is pretty much the only blue collar work I know of where you can make as much as you are willing to make. What you make is in your own hands."
Snyder says he feels "at home" when he comes to work. "It's a familiarity. Being raised around mines and being raised with miners is a familiar thing to me. It's like coming home. It's a wonderful place to work."
Miners at the Galena mine have primarily chased the silver-copper veins and the silver-lead veins. But in the 1950's, they discovered a rich silver vein, which the company pursued.
"We're still mining the silver vein," explains Dan Hussey, manager of explorations, "but most of it has been mined already, so now we have to be more creative and look for things that maybe were passed up or overlooked years ago."
And with the price of silver these days, the Canadian-based company, U.S. Silver, can return to those less lucrative veins abandoned years before.
"I’ve been here three years and the thing that I’ve found most amazing is how much ore is still here," says Hussey. "We’ve been mining this mine for over fifty years; it’s gone from the surface down to the 5500 foot level, and there’s still a lot of ore left to be mined. I call it low hanging fruit. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit to go after."
Even though mining has had its ups and downs, Dan Hussey is bullish on the Silver Valley. "Mining here is sustainable. We mine narrow, high grade veins here in the Silver Valley, and I think we’re good for many more decades."
The detective work for once-abandoned veins of silver-copper and silver-lead is being perfected by Hecla Mining Company, whose holdings include some of the Silver Valley's most productive mines. By electronically scanning a hundred years of historic mining maps, Hecla geologists have created 3-D animations that are proving useful for exploration.
"And the ‘eureka’ moment is that you can see when one fault comes in this way and another fault comes in this way," says Hecla's exploration manager Steve Petroni. "And lo and behold, there’s a mineral deposit or an ore body that’s found at the intersection of those faults.
"If you’re looking right at one of the ore bodies that we mine, and you’re looking at it directly on, it looks like it’s this very large block of mineralization. But as you rotate that block, you find it’s like looking at my hand. You see a very broad area. But as you rotate that, you find out that those ore bodies are very long and narrow, and they’re almost like exploring for sheets of paper."
Tourists to the Silver Valley may be surprised at all this talk about mining. Condominiums and a gondola connecting the town to nearby Silver Mountain draw the eye upwards, not down. And where once stood smokestacks and a smelter and scarred earth, new subdivisions are springing up. Unless you knew what was going on underground, you might think that mining was a thing of the past.
Kellogg's mayor, Mac Pooler, is excited about the return of mining to his town. "They’re good paying jobs, with good benefits. And it’s the kind of industry we need. We’re never going to get a Boeing, we’re never going to get the big stores, but we need the type of jobs that pay well and have good benefits and that can take care of their families."
Earl Bennett has studied the Silver Valley like few others. He's the Emeritus Dean of the College of Mines at the University of Idaho, and former director of the Idaho Geologic Survey. When people tell him they're concerned about renewed mining, he's pretty blunt. "Superfund was yesterday’s story," he says. "Folks down south, get over it!"
"We know the problems you can have, if you don’t run clean operations," he says. "And I can guarantee everybody in south Idaho and everywhere else, the industry we’ve got in the Coeur d’ Alene right now is not your father’s mining industry.
"We were cleaning up the sins of the fathers, so to speak. The companies that are here now do not have those kind of practices. They can’t do them by the environmental laws that we’ve got, and they don’t want to do them. Their intent is to be good neighbors."