State Looking to Secure Old Mines

By  | 

The Nevada Division of Minerals hopes to identify 500 old underground mine workings this summer and secure at least 450 more in a search for what officials estimate to be 50,000 abandoned sites across the state.

"Interns will be spread out over northern Nevada this year," said Bill Durbin, chief of the division's Abandoned Mine Lands Program.

Their work will be added to the 633 abandoned mine hazards secured during 2003, putting the total number of hazardous mine workings secured during the 16 years of the program to 7,410.

The newly released report on the 2003 Abandoned Mines Lands Program shows 9,640 hazards were discovered and ranked from the beginning of the program through 2003, with 519 found in 2003.

"We will break 10,000 this year by mid-summer," Durbin told the Elko Daily Free Press.

The 10,000 leaves roughly 40,000 to go to reach the estimated 50,000 abandoned mines in the state.

"We estimate around 50,000 shafts ... and other underground mine workings that truly pose a hazard," Durbin said.

Old-time miners looked for gold, silver and copper throughout Nevada in the 1880s and early 1900s, leaving behind small underground workings before moving to the next place.

"It's amazing to see what they did on the side of a mountain in those days. They had no trails or roads," Durbin said, also pointing out that the old miners didn't think about reclamation.

"In those early days Nevada had 30,000 to 50,000 people, and there was really no thought to Nevada being a population center," Durbin said.

"They were hardy souls. They really worked hard for every can of beans and evaporated milk," Durbin said.

The shafts and small tunnels they left behind are dangerous today, but the division's report on 2003 had good news on the safety front.

Only one person was hurt at an abandoned mine during the year, a 62-year-old man who received minor injuries in a 25-foot fall in a steep mine passageway in Clark County.

One dog fell down a shaft during 2003, also. That happened in Humboldt County, according to the report.

The prior year, one man drowned swimming in an open pit lake and one man was severely injured falling down a 25-foot tunnel. There have been other fatalities over the years, with data since 1971 showing 14 people killed over the years at abandoned mines.

Durbin said that between the division's efforts to remind people of the dangerous of old mines and the number of mines secured, "a lot of people are getting the message."

The division conducts the public awareness campaign throughout the year, visiting schools, distributing "Stay Out, Stay Alive" warnings and advertising the dangers abandoned underground mines pose.

Durbin said the division is currently distributing literature to every fourth-grader and every eighth-grader in Nevada as part of the campaign.

The 519 hazards identified and ranked in 2003 were down 12.3 percent from 2002 because the division focused on securing "orphan" hazards during the year, Durbin said.

The "orphans" are abandoned mines on public land administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service that don't have registered claim holders.

The agencies have to study and approve the work before it can be done, Durbin said. "We had a good backlog of those and wanted to concentrate on them."

The division reported 447 orphan hazards secured by the Nevada Division of Minerals staff and volunteers, and the report states this was a record number, up 32 percent over 2002.

The total number of hazards secured, 663, was up 30.8 percent over 2002, with mining claimants and private property owners securing 186 of those hazards, according to the report.

Eagle Scout candidates also helped, securing 61 hazards and repairing three sites secured earlier.

In Elko County alone, 330 hazards have been discovered over the years and 258 of those have been secured, the report shows.

Durbin said the work last year was done with four interns, but the division is hiring five interns to start work next month on the abandoned mines.