Like many of the historic mountain towns in Colorado, most of the mining that goes on in Ouray these days is of tourists, not ore. In between high alpine jeep tours and ice climbing, visitors can get a glimpse of Ouray’s romanticized mining heritage by dining at the Goldbelt Bar & Grill and the Silver Nugget Café, taking the Bachelor Syracuse gold mine tour and panning lesson, and retiring to a 1890s-era Victorian hotel. In the mountains outside of town, the last of the mines that built this picturesque pocket-sized town have been dormant since the 1980s, when the price of gold took a huge plunge.
But the high silver and gold prices of recent years have piqued the interests of investors, who believe profitable amounts of minerals still lie deep within the mines, or in the discarded tailings piles that dot the hillsides. As mining returns to Ouray, so do the risks that accompany it.
On November 17, two miners died from carbon monoxide poisoning inside the Revenue-Virginius silver mine, which was purchased by new owners Star Mine Operations in late 2011 and re-opened in February. A team of miners tried to rescue them, but were forced to turn back to avoid succumbing to high levels of the colorless, odorless deadly gas. It’s not clear who’s at fault for the fatalities, but a preliminary Mine Safety and Health Administration report found that the miners died in an area where an explosion had recently been detonated.
The tragedy has hit hard in Ouray County, population 4,500, where many residents and business owners were excited about the return of the mining industry. “Tourism is a seasonal economy at best; the return of mining is a good thing all around for everyone, and it also will be fun,” David Houtz, a jeweler from nearby Ridgway, told The Montrose Monitor in February.
That positive sentiment remains (perhaps minus the fun part), even after Sunday’s accident, when Robert Stoufer, owner of Ouray’s Buckskin Booksellers and a member of an economic development group, told The Denver Post, “mine is not a four-letter word here.”
The Revenue-Virginius’s safety record has come under scrutiny since then. In August, The Watch reported that work at the mine was progressing “feverishly, with three shifts of miners working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and surface workers putting in 10-hour days, five days a week.” The silver mine has an accident rate 115 percent above the national average, according to The Watch, although none of the accidents were very serious and included things like debris falling into a worker’s eye or an employee cutting his hand on a utility knife.
Still, says Ellen Smith, managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, the elevated rate suggests miners were rushing, and perhaps being careless. “Those little things start to add up and you have to say, ‘stop and slow down.’ You’re not being mindful as you work,” she said. “And if you want to work safely, you have to be mindful.”
Overall, hardrock mining is much safer than it used to be. In the early 1900s, annual U.S. fatalities in the 700-900 range were not uncommon. Since 2000, deaths in hardrock mines have numbered less than 50 a year, and less than 25 the past five years. The overall death rate has decreased as well: according to MSHA, the 2011 fatality rate of 0.0114 per 200,000 hours worked was the lowest ever recorded.
That’s due to a combination of improved safety equipment, like air purifying self-rescue devices (which the Ouray miners did have, although it’s unclear whether they used them), and better oversight. In 1977, after a series of mine disasters with high death tolls, Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, and since then subsequent accidents have prompted further regulations. “You have so many guys underground typically, and when one thing goes wrong it affects everybody,” Smith said.
Now, MSHA is more responsive to reports of safety violations, Smith said, and must visit the mine within 48 hours of receiving a complaint. MSHA also conducts biannual inspections of all surface mines, and visits every underground mine four times a year, unlike the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which does not generally inspect mines, and which prioritizes inspections of only the most hazardous workplaces.
MSHA has temporarily shut down the Revenue-Virginius mine while it completes its inspection, idling some 90 to 100 workers for an indefinite period of time. In the mean time, the price of silver remains about half what it was when Star Mine Operations took over the Revenue-Virginius, just over $20 an ounce. But mine operator Rory Williams won’t say what’s in store for his mine, telling The Denver Post, “we need to evaluate and make a decision when it becomes appropriate to make a decision.”
“These mines offer great jobs and great economic benefits,” Smith says, “so hopefully lessons will be learned.”
Emily Guerin is a correspondent for High Country News. She tweets @guerinemily.