August 15, 2008

Dangerous mines remain in county

State officials cap old shafts, urge curious to keep out

by Sarah Miley
Tooele Transcript-Bulletin

Tooele County, Utah (in red)

Tooele County’s history is rich with mining. Place names like Ophir, Jacob City and Gold Hill evoke images of days gone by when mining was an economic mainstay and a way of life. But this heritage has also left the county with a legacy of hidden dangers, according to state mining officials.

According to the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, there are an estimated 17,000 abandoned mines statewide. Hundreds of those are located within Tooele County. Problems start, however, when the lure of those mines attract backcountry recreationalists.

“Tooele County is heavily populated in abandoned mines,” said Jim Springer, spokesman for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

Springer said there are typically two groups of people who go into these mines: those who may stumble onto an old mine while perhaps recreating, and those who may explore old mines as a hobby.

The state’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program, which was initiated in 1982, aims to close mines that pose the greatest risk to people who may choose to access them. The state also conducts the ‘stay out and stay alive’ campaign, started in 1985, to educate people about the dangers of an abandoned mine.

Completed reclamation projects in Tooele County include Serviceberry Canyon, Jacob City and another recently finished this spring at Gold Hill, which is south of Wendover.

The Gold Hill project involved closing less than 100 mines. Hundreds more there have not been touched yet, Springer said.

“There are probably more that should be done in that area, but there’s a limited number of mines that can be sealed each year with funds and staff available to do the work,” Springer said. “Usually the Abandoned Mine Reclamation is able to close 200 to 300 mines a year. With 17,000 scattered around the state, you can see it would take a while to get to them all.”

Another project in the Lakeside Mountains is planned to close 33 mine openings, which are mostly on BLM land. Springer said most of these will be backfilled, but a few will be grated.

Funding for these reclamation projects comes from a tax on coal production in the state. The allotment this year, according to Springer, is about $3.5 million.

Mines that are to be sealed are prioritized, for example by public safety hazards. But before any work is done, there’s an evaluation of the site, Springer said.

“The whole area is evaluated in regards to history, endangered species and wildlife,” said Springer, adding the National Historic Preservation Act, state historian, archeologists and the Environmental Protection Agency are all consulted.

“We don’t want to destroy the historical flavor if there’s some history to be preserved there,” Springer said.

Springer said while the division seals mines, private landowners may do additional work, such as removing buildings, because there are liability issues. Entering a mine, whether on private or federal land, is almost always a trespassing violation without the permission of the landowner.

The division’s official position is abandoned mines are unsafe, however, if a landowner willingly accepts liability and lets people go in and explore a mine that’s OK.

“We wish there were more opportunities for enthusiasts to do just that,” he said, adding he knows of four mines in Colorado that are open for exploration on a commercial basis, while there are currently none in Utah.

Specific entries to abandoned mines can be closed several ways. The easiest, Springer said, is to backfill the hole with dirt. That’s usually done in instances where there’s not a lot of history to be maintained at the site. Or, a block, such as a brick wall, can be put up to prevent access. If wildlife is involved — like bats that often live in mines — a bat grate, which looks like a jail cell door, allows bats to come in and out of the mine, while preventing people from getting in.

Springer said working mines can be dangerous — which is why they’re regulated by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration — but abandoned mines are infinitely more so.

“Support timbers become old and can be rotten, and no longer support the weight of the mine itself,” Springer said. “They can be subject to cave-ins or rocks sluffing off and falling in on you.”

Inside a mine, there is an ardit — a mine opening going horizontally in the mountain — and once inside there can be shafts or winzes, which are guts that go straight down. Sometimes these can be covered by old, rotten boards and some are hundreds of feet deep. There’s also the possibility of bad air.

“Many mines required at one time or another machinery to pump oxygen into them,” Springer said. “It’s possible there’s just bad air in an abandoned mine, no longer any oxygen, and that could overtake you before you noticed. You can black out and suffocate.”

In addition, explorers can run into old explosives, and dynamite that’s been left for many years becomes unstable, Springer said.

“Of course animals can take up residence that may not get along with you,” he said. “Little things like that.”

According to the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, since the early 1980s, 10 Utahns have died and another two dozen others have been injured while exploring or happening upon these abandoned mines — and Tooele County is not exempt.

On Jan. 13, 1996, Jeremiah Etherington died after falling in a mine near Stockton called the Honorine Mine. Robert Bartholomew was killed in the Thorpe Hills, near Five-Mile Pass, when he drove his ATV into a 50-foot deep mine shaft on Jan. 23, 1999. In 1971, there was a fatality at a Gold Hill mine when a man died from a rock fall. And on Sept. 23, 1989, Joshua Dennis was lost for five days at Hidden Treasure Mine near Stockton and rescued after an intensive search, according to Springer.

Springer said it’s best for people to enjoy the history of the mines at a distance.

“You still get the feel and historical flavor without actually entering the mine,” he said. “It’s best to enjoy the area that way. If you come across an old mine, we’d be happy to hear about it.”