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03 May 2014

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Big Creek, May 2, 2014: Police cars regulated traffic coming off of Interstate Highway 90, while a crowd of about three hundred people gathered in Idaho's warm spring sunshine.

Arriving a little late, I had to park 200 meters down the frontage road and walk back to the larger-than-life statue of a miner and his drill. The annual memorial ceremony of the Sunshine Mine fire, the second largest mining disaster in American history, was just beginning.

Below the speaker's stand, ninety-one chairs, each seat holding a miner's helmet and its light, faced the audience to symbolize the miners who had lost their lives that tragic day in 1972.

The crowd was a mixture of local families, bringing their children to teach them about their grandpa or their great-uncle's heritage; retired miners coming back to show their respect; and silent men wearing the mine rescue insignia of the Galena, the Lucky Friday, or the Sunshine mine teams.

The Sunshine Mine was the largest producer of silver in the country, 7 million ounces per year. To reach the working area, you had to ride a lift down a kilometer, then ride an underground train one-and-a-half km to the Number-10 shaft and descend another kilometer. About 150 men worked per shift.

When smoke was detected, around 11 a.m. the emergency 'get out NOW' signal was sent (a distinctive foul odor dumped into the air ducts supplying all below-ground stations.)

Sixty men escaped. Ninety-one others died quickly of monoxide poisoning. No one thought there was much to burn in a hard-rock mine, but they were wrong. Even the plastic air ducts themselves caught fire.

The mining industry learned a lot of other things, too:

Mine rescue teams carrying a 40-pound, two-hour supply of oxygen must use most of it just to travel to and from the target area. This caused newer models to be made lighter and last longer.

Extra oxygen needs to always be immediately available for the lift operator to stay at his post until all the men below are out.

Self-rescue masks do no good if they are locked in a cupboard. All miners are now required to always carry one on their belt, every time they go underground.

Carbon monoxide is odourless, heavier than air, and often spreads ahead of the smoke. Monoxide detectors in the mine save lives. The 4.5% level at the Sunshine that day killed with a single breath. Even a level as low as 0.1% can cause unconsciousness if breathed for one hour.

Ores containing lead, cadmium, mercury, uranium, or manganese, can be toxic. Frequent monitoring of workers' blood levels of these and other harmful substances, when present, should be required of all mining companies.

There is no excuse for a mining company to ignore these safety rules. Any government can enforce them quite simply.

A mine can be shut down immediately, not by law suits, but by seizing it's supply of dynamite or other explosives. Don't wait until miners die.

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