NR 2003-32
November 11, 2003

Contact: Ed Wilson
Mark Oldfield
Don Drysdale
(916) 323-1886


MAGALIA, Calif. – When Molly, a 4-year-old Australian shepherd mix, disappeared last April 15, Hildy Langewis was baffled. Running away was out of character for her dog.

“She had never jumped the fence before, except once to make sure a bear that had come around had gone away,” Langewis said. “I put out flyers and looked all around. It was a real mystery.”

Langewis never suspected that Molly was within 100 yards of her house – 50 feet down at the bottom of a nine-foot diameter mineshaft that Langewis had walked past countless times without ever noticing.

Fortunately, a neighbor who knew of the shaft, Tammie Shields, decided to show a friend the dangerous relic of a mine that ceased operations 70 years ago. Shields and Howard Farber shined a flashlight into the shaft and saw Molly. Farber and his son, Joshua, rescued the lucky pup on June 10. Molly had survived for eight weeks by drinking rainwater. She was healthy, but had lost 17 pounds – a third of her body weight.

“I don’t think a person would have survived that,” Langewis said. “It was deep, dark, cold and who knows what would have been crawling all over you. I didn’t even know the shaft was there. It was right off the path where I walk Molly, very close to my property line. Other people knew about it, but nobody ever reported it.”

Molly’s rescue is the story’s first happy ending. There is another. Upon hearing about Molly’s mishap, representatives of the Office of Mine Reclamation – part of the California Department of Conservation – contacted Langewis and the Paradise Irrigation District (PID), which owns the land. PID had placed orange plastic fencing around the shaft, and requested the assistance of the Office of Mine Reclamation to achieve a more enduring solution.

Today, the opening will be permanently sealed. OMR and PID have hired Frontier Environmental Solutions to install a foam plug, which will then be covered with dirt and vegetation. OMR has been cataloguing the tens of thousands of abandoned mines in the state since 1997 but only received funding to do remediation work last year.

“Abandoned mines have the potential to be a major public safety issue as the population pushes farther out into areas that were intensely mined during the Gold Rush era,” DOC Director Darryl Young said. “We’ve only recently gotten a realistic picture of how many dangerous old mines are out there, and, unfortunately, sometimes we don’t find out about them until there’s a tragedy. Not all encounters with old mines end as well as Molly’s did.”

In mid-October, Dale Cleveland, 45, of Gasquet died while off-roading in Altaville, a former mining community in the Smith River National Recreation area in Northern California. Cleveland drove his 1970 Toyota Land Cruiser into a 70-foot deep shaft. His son, Tyson, received moderate injuries.

In June of 2002, brothers Glenn and Nicholas Anderson from Orange County died exploring a flooded silver mine in the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California.

Near Grass Valley, a Bay Area family built its dream home over a mineshaft that had been covered with topsoil. The ground in front of the house collapsed, exposing a 30-foot deep pit below the home’s front steps.

A report issued in 2000 following a nearly three-year study by DOC’s Office of Mine Reclamation concluded that there are at least 39,000 abandoned mine sites in the state. After further field investigations, the estimate was increased to 46,900. Prior to the report, the estimated number of abandoned mines in California was based on old data and ranged from a low of 7,000 to a high of 20,000.

Of the 46,900 abandoned mines, it is estimated that about 84 percent present physical safety hazards. Many have several openings such as the one Molly found. Other hazards include unstable highwalls or structures such as mine buildings that could collapse at a touch; tunnels in which the unwary could become hopelessly lost; internal shafts (winzes) that pose fall hazards; and disease-carrying, predatory or poisonous animals that sometimes live in old mines.

The DOC also estimates that approximately 5,200 (11 percent) of California's abandoned mine sites present environmental or chemical hazards. These include acute environmental hazards such as old explosives, drums of chemicals or direct exposure to toxic mine tailings.

There are also subtle hazards inside abandoned mines -- poisonous gases or low oxygen levels. More often, there are chronic environmental hazards. For example, contaminated runoff from abandoned mines affects land, groundwater, streams, rivers and lakes in many areas throughout the state.

Today, there is one less hazard. No trace will remain of “Molly’s shaft” -- but it is perhaps just one of many air vents dug to service the Perschbaker-Lucretia gold mine. The mine opened in 1855 and operated until the 1930s. It produced about $120 million worth of gold, with peak production in the 1890s.

“We’re pleased to be able to mitigate this hazard with the help of the Department of Conservation,” PID General Manager Ray Auerbach said. “We were fortunate to find out about this danger to the community before a tragedy occurred.”

Added Langewis: “I’m relieved. It could easily have been a child that fell in.”

Working with more than a dozen state and federal partners, the Office of Mine Reclamation remediated 57 abandoned mine features in eight counties in the past year. Projects included bat-compatible closures at seven mine features, fencing around 25 features, PUF (polyurethane foam) closures of 13 shafts and adits (tunnels), dynamiting one adit, backfilling seven shafts, and demolishing and removing debris from four unstable mine structures.

OMR asks citizens to report abandoned mine sites by calling 1-877-OLD-MINE.

“In the days when `Molly’s shaft’ was dug, the mining industry was less sophisticated and less environmentally conscious than it is today,” DOC Director Young said. “Many of these abandoned mine sites are the legacy of the Gold Rush, and the responsible individuals or companies are long gone. Mining helped make California great, but we must continue to address this unfortunate byproduct of an important industry.”

In addition to ensuring the reclamation of land used for mining, the Department of Conservation studies and maps earthquakes and other geologic phenomena; regulates oil, gas and geothermal wells; maps and classifies areas containing mineral deposits; administers agricultural and open-space land conservation programs; and promotes beverage container recycling.