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Taconite miner killed by falling drill

EVELETH -- A rotary drill that tipped over, killing a United Taconite miner Wednesday morning, was not moving before it toppled, according to the first miner on the scene.

EVELETH -- A rotary drill that tipped over, killing a United Taconite miner Wednesday morning, was not moving before it toppled, according to the first miner on the scene.

"It's going to be a tough time for all of us," said Gary Butala, the first miner on the scene and a member of a United Steelworkers safety committee. "It just tipped over while operating."

Authorities are investigating what went wrong at the Eveleth mine.

Today, investigators will meet with miners who were near the accident, Butala said.

The employee died from injuries sustained when the drill fell over during routine pit operations, according to a company news release.

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Butala said the drill is a little more than a year old.

The accident was reported at 10:49 a.m.

The employee died at the scene, said Lt. Ed Kippley of the St. Louis County Sheriff's Department. The Sheriff's Department has ruled it an accident.

The name of the employee is being withheld pending notification of relatives.

Details were still sketchy Wednesday night.

After the incident, the mine was shut down and remained down during the afternoon shift, Butala said.

The accident occurred near the north end of United Taconite's North Pit, said Eveleth Police Lt. LeRoy Hilde. Eveleth Police and Eveleth Ambulance assisted the Sheriff's Department, Hilde said.

The pit is between Eveleth and Virginia, just south of U.S. Highway 53.

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Rotary drills, which feature tall vertical masts, are used to drill holes into large areas of taconite. It can take hours to drill each hole.

After completing a hole, the drill operator moves the huge drill, which operates on tank-like tracks, slowly to another drill hole location.

Each hole is normally about 45 feet deep. A series of holes, called a pattern, are later filled with explosives. The explosives are detonated, shattering millions of tons of taconite, which are scooped up by huge electric shovels and trucked to a processing plant.

United Steelworkers officials say mining drills, for the most part, have been safe places to work; however, some accidents have occurred on the mammoth, multimillion dollar rigs.

"I think they're relatively safe," said Bob Bratulich, United Steelworkers District 112 director. "But we have had occurrences when the masts have cracked or the motor [on top of the mast] has come down."

It's been years since a drill accident has occurred at an Iron Range taconite plant, said Mike Woods, president of United Steelworkers Local 1938 at Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron.

"We did have one about five years ago that tipped over while it was moving," Woods said. "I think it hit a soft spot. They're kind of top heavy."

Cleveland-Cliffs manages and owns 70 percent of United Taconite. Laiwu Steel of China owns 30 percent.

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Heavy equipment, high voltage electricity and moving machinery hold danger at all taconite plants.

The last fatality at an Iron Range mine occurred in October 2006 when Andrew Reed, an electrical coordinator at United Taconite's processing plant in Forbes, died in an electrical explosion.

Since 1990, six miners have been killed at Iron Range taconite plants. From 1980 to 1990, seven died. From 1970 to 1980, 14 died.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety Health Administration, United Steelworkers, United Taconite, Cleveland-Cliffs and local authorities are investigating.

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