Washington miners struggle as it faces loss of biggest employer

METALINE FALLS, Wash. (AP) — Times are tough in a rural county in northeast Washington state because one of the region's biggest employers is shutting down.

The Pend Oreille Mine, just north of Metaline Falls, closed on July 31, at a cost of about 200 family-wage jobs in an area of less than 1,000 residents.

It's another sign of the imbalance of prosperity in Washington state. While the Seattle area gorges on high-paying jobs, many rural counties like Pend Oreille County that depend on natural resource industries — logging, fishing, mining — are suffering.

This divide is part of a national trend. People in urban areas had higher per-capita income, lower poverty rates, lower unemployment rates and higher education levels than people in rural areas in recent years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rural areas are also suffering a declining population, while urban areas grow, the USDA said.

Pend Oreille County Commissioner Steve Kiss said the loss of about 200 jobs at the lead and zinc mine hurts. About 40 employees will remain for long-term maintenance.

"The mine was the last operating natural resource-based industry in the northern part of the county, with the exception of two hydroelectric facilities," Kiss said. "In the past we have lost other mines, sawmills, a cement plant and the railroad that served all these industries."

Small businesses struggle to survive in the area in the best of times, Kiss said. "Our two grocery stores, a few restaurants and bars and two gas stations/convenience stores will definitely see a reduction in sales," he said, while local governments will see less tax revenue.

Pend Oreille (Pahn-duh-ray') County is bordered on the north by Canada and to the east by Idaho. The Selkirk Mountains create a dramatic landscape, blanketed by national forests and a wilderness area.

The human footprint here is light.

Pend Oreille County has just 13,500 residents, and its unemployment rate of 7.2 percent was already more than two full points higher than the statewide average of 4.6 percent in June.

The owners of the Pend Oreille Mine said the closure was prompted by slumping demand for zinc and the prohibitive cost of exploring for new deposits. The Galena and Lucky Friday mines in nearby northern Idaho are the only active large mining operations left in the Inland Northwest, a region that was originally built by a robust mining industry.

Metaline Falls, a town of less than 300 souls, was quiet on a recent Wednesday morning. The tidy downtown contained a restaurant, grocery store, movie theater and numerous closed-up stores.

"This is a mining town," said Arlie Ward, a resident since 1996. He owns the historic Washington Hotel downtown, which caters to the tourists who increasingly come to the outdoor playground. "It's a bite for sure. Half the people around here worked there."

Not all the economic news from the county is bad.

In April, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians opened a new casino near Cusick that is part of a $10 million project that includes an RV park, storage facility, gas station and grocery store. In total, they will create about 80 new jobs.

The formerly-impoverished tribe operates a large off-reservation casino in a suburb of Spokane that has been very successful. Now it is pouring money closer to its reservation.

"We are focusing on economic development," tribal council member Curt Holmes said.

Bill Bisson, a city councilman in the nearby town of Metaline, said local leaders are working hard to expand the tourism base.

"We've got to look for different ways to bring the economy back," Bisson said.

The mine closure is survivable, he added. "All the people are hardy people. They'll continue to move forward," Bisson said.

The prognosis for the mine site is grim, however.

A 2013 study by community leaders looked at what could be done with the 263 acres of surface mine property and 20 industrial buildings. The study found little chance of gaining another large employer.

The mine previously temporarily closed in 2008, but it reopened five years later when zinc prices increased.

Metaline Falls Mayor Tara Leininger, 62, doesn't expect a similar situation. "We're looking at losing people," Leininger said.

Mining companies from across the nation have been recruiting the employees of the Pend Oreille Mine, because underground hard rock mining is a specialized skill.

The mine closure isn't the only factor in the shrinking population. Leininger said some people with health problems have left to be closer to hospitals. The local clinic just lost its only doctor.

Kiss, the county commissioner, has lived for nearly 60 years in Pend Oreille County.

"I fully understand the resiliency of the people who live here," Kiss added. "We will survive."