METALINE FALLS — Times are tough in a rural county in northeast Washington 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 the 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 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.