For nearly a quarter of a century, Small Mine Development had worked as a contract miner at various underground hardrock mines throughout the West without a fatality.
Their list of clients encompassed the best of modern Nevada gold mining including Barrick, Newmont, Echo Bay, Placer Dome, Homestake, and many others.
SMD's safety record at small underground metals mines had earned the company a runner-up designation for the MSHA 2005 Sentinels of Safety Awards for 15,872 hours without a reportable accident at the Pinson Underground project.
Even more noteworthy was the Sentinels Certificate of Honor earned by SMD for its safety track at the Getchell underground gold mine for 621,000 man hours without a reportable accident for the period of January 200 to December 2006. The 40 persons who worked Getchell were not only a team, but a tight-knit crew small enough to view each other almost as a family.
Roof bolter Curtis Johnson-who had seven years mining experience including 4.5 years working at Getchell-was killed when portions of the back and rib fell on top of him in a drift he had just completed bolting on August 28, 2007. MSHA concluded that the accident occurred because management procedures and controls were inadequate and failed to ensure that persons could safely install ground support. SMD was cited by MSHA for several violations.
In an interview with Mineweb Monday, SMD President Ron Guill said that first accident had taken place in a section of Getchell which had not been mined for a decade. Guill said a large flow of sand had caused the supports to give way, killing the 35-year-old Johnson.
On January 26, 2008, Michael Millican had parked his haul truck on the ramp. Jose Salutrigi left his load-haul-dump loader to move Millican's truck, which was blocking access to a drift/ramp intersection. Salutrigi got into Millican's truck and accidentally struck Millican as he was returning to his truck, killing him instantly. A miner with 10 years experience, Millican had worked almost five years operating a haul truck at Getchell. Salutrigi had nearly five years experience operating equipment at the mine.
MSHA determined the accident occurred because management procedures and controls were inadequate and failed to ensure that equipment operators sound a warning or use other effective means to warn persons who could be exposed to a hazard from the equipment. The agency would issue a citation against SMD.
On April 21st of this year tragedy would strike again as a 28-year mechanic with nearly two years experience was fatally injured when he and two other miners were performing maintenance on a roof bolter when cemented backfill fell, burying Kenny Barbosa. Guill said Monday that the men were working again in a remnant area of the mine, which hadn't been worked in six years.
In regards to the accidents that killed Johnson and Barbosa, Guill insisted that neither one of those young men can be faulted for doing anything wrong.
Nonetheless, after Barbosa's death, Guill said his crew were so traumatized by three fatalities in less than a year; they would never again work at Getchell. Although the phase contract miner may bring to mind a temporary work, Guill said a number of SMD miners have been with the company for at least 15 years.
Greg Lang, President, Barrick Gold, North America told Mineweb Monday that Getchell will remain closed and has been placed on a care-and-maintenance basis. Guill said Barrick also has terminated SMD's contract mining services at several other gold mining operations including Nevada's Cortez Hill project and Montana's Golden Sunlight underground mine.
Despite the loss of the Barrick contract, SMD is active in a number of other Nevada underground mining projects and has been offered other contract work since the Getchell deaths.
Lang described Getchell as a small mine with small mining reserves. Its closure will not have a big impact to Barrick's overall Nevada operations. Lou Schack, Manager of Communications and Community Affairs for Barrick Gold North America, and Lang told Mineweb that the ground conditions at Getchell are not any better or any worse than those of Barrick's other underground operations in Nevada.
Nevertheless, Lang noted, All mine accidents are preventable, adding that the safety of Barrick employees is paramount.
Although Getchell was a contract mining operation, Lang and Schack said Brent Kristoff, General Manager of the Barrick-Newmont Turquoise JV, retained the authority to conduct safety inspections of the mine. Lang and Schack also credit a long-time training academy run by Getchell's sister Turquoise Ridge with improving Barrick's overall underground safety record. Ironically, nearby Turquoise Ridge, which had reported five fatalities since 1999, has undergone considerable change as a mine operated and staffed by Barrick employees. Turquoise Ridge has not reported a fatality since 2005.
Despite a recent news report quoting a Nevada Mine Safety and Training official critical of ground conditions at Getchell, Jeff Bixler told Mineweb Monday that had he made no such statement, and would not comment on Getchell until the investigation of Barbosa's death has been completed by MSHA.