November 7, 2008                                              

Contact: Don Drysdale  
             Carrie Reinsimar
              Krista Jaenicke

SACRAMENTO -- The Office of Mine Reclamation’s Abandoned Mine Lands Unit (AMLU) just celebrated a milestone, completing its 500th mine remediation project since 2002. The landmark project installed a dome-like “cupola” that keeps people out while allowing bats to enter and leave at the Gold Bug Mine complex on federal Bureau of Land Management property near Ridgecrest in Kern County.

“We’re very proud of the work AMLU has done to protect public safety and wildlife,” said Dennis O’Bryant, chief of the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) Office of Mine Reclamation. “The unit has done a great job closing potentially hazardous mines throughout California.”

The Gold Bug Mine opened in the 1890s and was worked off and on through 1949, producing gold, silver and copper. Of the seven shafts onsite, the deepest is about 300 feet. The project was completed in a relatively modest shaft of 40-plus feet and was selected because, unlike the others, it was not enclosed by a fence. Once the remaining shafts are covered with bat cupolas in the coming weeks, BLM plans to turn the site into an interpretive nature center with information about bats and mining history.

AMLU began cataloguing the state’s abandoned mines in 1997. In 2000, the unit estimated that at least 39,000 abandoned mine sites exist in the state. After further field investigations, the estimate was increased to 47,000.

Initially, AMLU was authorized only to inventory abandoned mines, not to remediate them. That changed in 2002, when the Legislature directed the unit to use half of its $250,000 budget to mend hazardous abandoned mine features discovered during field inventories. The Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1975 – the state law governing mining – was later amended, authorizing a fee of $5 per ounce of gold and 10 cents per ounce of silver mined within the state to be used for physical hazard remediation. The Gold Bug project was not only the 500th overall for AMLU, but the 337th project paid for with the gold and silver fees.

Among its efforts in 24 counties, AMLU has completed fencing work at 142 sites and backfilled 162.
The unit has closed 120 mine features with culvert gates and other bat-friendly structures, and 48 with expandable foam that hardens into a permanent seal. Some sites have required simple fixes, demolition and trash removal. Others have been more complex: In one case, material to build a cupola was ferried in by helicopter.

“Today there are 500 fewer abandoned mine features in California that pose a threat to public health and safety,” AMLU Manager Cy Oggins said. “However, there are many more sites in the state left to remediate.”

AMLU gives priority to sites where there have been accidents and other evidence of human visitation, or that are near either communities or magnet areas such as trails or campgrounds. AMLU does not work on private property (although it does assess hazards and offer mitigation advice, upon request), and requires its public partners to complete biological and archaeological assessment of sites and partial funding before work

"There have been some memorable projects," Oggins said. "We plugged a 50-foot-deep vertical shaft that a family nearly drove its truck into. We've plugged two other shafts from which dogs had to be rescued. The Discovery Channel's `Dirty Jobs' came out on one of our closures to film a segment just recently."

The vast majority of the state’s abandoned mines present physical dangers -- for example, falling hazards; unstable walls or structures that can collapse at a touch; tunnels in which the unwary can become lost; and disease-carrying, predatory or poisonous animals that sometimes call abandoned mines home.

AMLU estimates that approximately 5,200 (11 percent) of California's abandoned mine sites present environmental or chemical hazards. These include acute hazards such as old explosives, drums of chemicals or direct exposure to toxic mine tailings as well as more subtle hazards such as poisonous gases, low oxygen levels or deep pools of water. Often, there are chronic environmental hazards; contaminated runoff from old mines affects land, groundwater, streams, rivers and lakes in many areas.

“Each year, several Californians are injured or killed because they accidentally came across an
abandoned mine or decided to go exploring in one,” said Oggins. “Our motto is `stay out, stay alive.’ ”
Anyone who encounters an abandoned mine site is asked to note the location and to call OMR’s hotline, 1-877-OLD-MINE, so the site can be investigated and ultimately remediated.