The Extent of the Abandoned Mine Problem
Nevada's abandoned mines are found throughout the state. According to the Nevada Division of Minerals, there are around 200,000 abandoned mines, some 50,000 of which pose serious public safety hazards. This trouble started brewing when mining began in Nevada around 1849 and went on virtually unchecked until modern regulations were adopted to stop the most serious abuses and hold mining interests accountable for cleaning up after themselves.
Thousands of Nevada's abandoned mines are on public land simply because most of the Silver State is under federal jurisdiction of one type or another. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages almost 48 million acres of Nevada's public lands, or about 67% of the state's land area. The BLM Nevada abandoned mine program uses various funding mechanisms and works with other agencies to remove physical and environmental hazards and permanently seal abandoned mines. The program has sealed and/or fenced around 15,000 of the most dangerous 50,000 sites in Nevada. The pace of closing mines with bat gates, filling in with dirt and rocks, or sealing with expanding foam is almost 200 per year.
Why are Abandoned Mines Unsafe?
So what's the big deal? Why shouldn't I explore and check out these interesting old mines and historic relics? Simply put, it's because you run a real risk of serious injury or death by messing around at these sites. The danger might not be obvious at first inspection, but here are some of the reasons to back off...
- Unstable mine openings and walls.
- Deadly gas and lack of oxygen.
- Cave-ins and decayed timbers.
- Unsafe ladders and rotten structures.
- Unstable explosives and toxic chemicals.
- Drowning in shafts filled with water.
- Poisonous snakes and spiders.
- Disease-carrying rodents.
- Bats that may carry rabies.
Because there are so many of them and they can be anywhere, always be aware of your surroundings when traveling across public lands, whether on foot, by vehicle, ATV, dirt bike, or horseback. Between 1971 and 2007, there were 27 injuries and 15 deaths in incidents at abandoned mines in Nevada according to the Abandoned Mine Lands Program of the Nevada Division of Minerals. Now you understand the reason behind the motto on the sign - Stay Out and Stay Alive.
The abandoned mine problem is not restricted to Nevada or even the western United States. These hazards exists all across the country. To learn more, refer to this excellent resource - Abandoned Mine and Quarry Accidents Claim About 30 Lives Per Year.
Other Hazards Around Abandoned Mines
You may see other unsafe structures around abandoned mine sites long before you find the actual mine opening or shaft. These include headframes, old buildings, equipment scattered about, ore cart rails, and tailings piles. You should keep a healthy distance from all of these and resist the urge to explore too closely. Above all, don't enter or get under any structure. Use a camera to collect souvenirs to take home. Note that it is against the law to take any items you find from public land that may be cultural, historical, or archaeological artifacts. Leave things as you find them so others can enjoy the site as they were left when the miners walked away from the site.
The picture on this page illustrates this potential danger. The old ore loading bin is built into a steep hillside and secured with logs from trees cut nearby. The structure is at least 100 years old and is loaded with dirt and rocks. It will eventually fall down by itself, but an unwary explorer climbing on it could cause it to collapse and risk becoming crushed under tons of debris. Don't let it be you. This ore bin is next to one of the hiking trails in Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in central Nevada.
What to do if you Find an Abandoned Mine
- Don't even think about exploring or entering the shaft.
- Do not throw rocks or any other objects down the shaft. Animals like owls, bats, and tortoises often shelter in abandoned mines and they should be left undisturbed.
- Leave the area and tell others to stay away from the site.
- As soon as possible, call the Nevada Division of Minerals and report the mine site.
Case Study - Abandoned Mine Death in Jersey Valley
On March 2, 2011, Devin Westenskow and two companions were exploring an abandoned mine in Jersey Valley, a remote area south of Battle Mountain, Nevada, and near the boundary between Lander and Pershing Counties. Westenskow fell into the vertical mine shaft and the accident was reported to the Lander County Sheriff at around noon. Lander County Sheriff Ron Unger responded with a search and rescue team, but they were unable to descend to aid Westenskow due to dangerous and unstable conditions.
Additional assistance was called in from Pershing County Sheriff Richard Machado, the Washoe County Sheriff's Office, the Fallon Naval Air Station, Bureau of Land Management, Newmont Gold's emergency response and mine rescue team, and several other public and private organizations and volunteers. Rescue efforts continued for over 48 hours without success. After using a monitoring camera to observe Westenskow at the bottom of the 182 foot deep shaft, he was pronounced dead by Deputy Coroner John Rogers of the Pershing County Sheriff's Office.
The mine shaft, with Westenskow's body still at the bottom, was permanently closed and sealed with the permission of his family.
Where to Safely Visit Historic and Modern Mines in Nevada
There are safe places to satisfy your curiosity about what's underground in Nevada's historic mines. At Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, rangers take visitors on guided tours of the Diana Mine, one of Berlin's top producers in its heyday.
Closer to Reno are some mine tours available in Virginia City. The old mines date back to the Comstock boom era that started around 1860. Both the Chollar Mine and Ponderosa Mine offer underground tours.
To tour big, modern mining operations in Nevada, contact Newmont Mining at one of the locations listed, all of which are varying distances east of Reno along I80. Tours are only during the summer months and require an appointment.