Stay Out, Stay Alive — Closing Abandoned Mines to Protect the Public

By Don Drysdale

DOC Division of Mine Reclamation’s Abandoned Mine Lands Unit (AMLU) has been responsible for closing more than a thousand potentially dangerous legacy mine openings around the state, typically with protecting outdoor recreation enthusiasts in mind. Recently, though, AMLU facilitated a project that started with a mother’s plea to protect a child in true need of protection.

In late October 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Bakersfield office was contacted by a new resident of the Hungry Gulch area of Lake Isabella who had found the abandoned shaft within a couple hundred feet of her home.

“It’s literally across the street – much too close for comfort,” said the resident, Mylee Dornner.

IMG_2015_edits.jpg
An AMLU contractor peers into an old mineshaft near residences in the Lake Isabella area.

The proximity of the mine itself may have raised a red flag, but there’s more to the story.

“My youngest son is autistic,” Dornner explained. “He has an issue known as ‘eloping,’ which is why I was very nervous about the shaft. Basically, he sometimes runs away, and he’s not afraid of things that he should be afraid of. He’s scared of the sound of a vacuum cleaner or the buzz of hair clippers, but he might run out of the house and onto the road into oncoming traffic without any fear. He could have gone to the mine site and said `Oh, cool, there’s a ladder’ and fallen in. My older boys (12 and 10) knew better than to go near it.”

After hearing from Dornner, BLM staff visited the site and found a shaft partially plugged with a large boulder dropping into an approximately 25-foot deep shaft, as well as the opening to an adit (a mine tunnel) on a slope below the boulders. A report described the site this way:

These … features are not lode mines excavated into granite, but are placer features within the gravel deposits, aka “coyote mines.” Imagine a human sized burrow-hole. These are incredibly unstable by nature and there is evidence of collapse.”

BLM quickly determined the site to be hazardous and did a temporary closure utilizing plywood and fencing. But BLM knew that wasn’t enough.

AMLU Lake Isabella shaft with plywood
BLM attempt a temporary closure of the mine with plywood and fencing.

In an email to AMLU, Gregg Wilkerson of the federal agency wrote:

With determination, a child could breach our fence and plywood barriers. So fast action from you to identify a better way to close this feature would be appreciated.”

In early November 2018, Jon Mistchenko and Dave Tibor of AMLU visited the site. They agreed that more thorough remediation work was needed. While the mine site was relatively small, Mistchenko said, “It was a little complicated because of the boulder.”

AMLU Lake Isabella shaft
A large boulder covers the opening of the mine, but still leaves enough room for curious explorers.

It was further complicated by a looming shutdown of the federal government, which ultimately closed the BLM office for more than a month. AMLU manager Cy Oggins expedited the paperwork to engage a contractor, Frontier Environmental Services, to seal the openings with expanding polyurethane foam (PUF).

The project was completed on December 14, just over a week before the shutdown, and the plugs were covered with soil, leaving no sign of the shaft.

AMLU Lake Isabella foam in the void
Polyurethane foam is used to fill the spaces around the boulder preventing access to the mine.

“The BLM is grateful for Ms. Dornner for bringing this issue to our attention,” said Gabriel Garcia, field manager of BLM’s Bakersfield office. “We would like to thank the California Division of Mine Reclamation for the work coordinating the closure of this public hazard.”

The situation reminded Mistchenko of the very first closure conducted by AMLU, in 2001. A family with two young kids reported a shaft on BLM property 100 feet from their house.

“If one kid knows of the mine then others do or will, too,” he said. “An open mine in a neighborhood just seems like an accident waiting to happen.”

He noted that there were indications that kids had been inside the Lake Isabella mine.

Although the fact that Dornner’s child is autistic and prone to running off may seem a compelling argument for remediation in and of itself, Oggins noted: “We treat all reports of hazardous abandoned mines on public lands the same — particularly those very near residences.”

AMLU in 2000 issued a report to the governor and legislature estimating there are about 40,000 abandoned mines in California, many of which pose physical or environmental hazards, or both. It began remediation work in 2002, partnering with federal, state, and local agencies when abandoned mines are found on public lands. Most often, the work is done in areas where only hearty hikers and off-road riders venture, rather than in a neighborhood setting.

AMLU Hungry Gulch remediation
Snow falls on AMLU staff as remediation work is done on the abandoned mine.

That someone was looking for gold in the Lake Isabella area is no surprise. The lake is northeast of Bakersfield, a nugget’s throw from the Keyesville area. Gold was discovered on the Kern River in the 1850s, setting off a rush once Mother Lode miners had grabbed most of the easy-to-get stuff up north. Several mining towns popped up in the area.

“There were a number of significant gold mines around,” Mistchenko said. “Kern County has oil in the San Joaquin Valley and a variety of different metallic minerals in the mountains and desert.”

The Lake Isabella site, Mistchenko ventured, was “likely of low historical significance.” Based on pick marks in the rock, he surmises that there were no explosives used; the mine was dug by hand.

“We’re guessing it was people looking for gold, but we’re not exactly sure when the workings were dug,” he said. “There was a can from the 1870s in the area, but the mine may have been from a different period.”

The boulder is another unknown. In Mistchenko’s estimation, its presence atop the shaft wasn’t a rudimentary attempt at a plug.

“My best guess it that it fell from the outcrop up above the mine,” he said. “If the boulder had already been there, it would have been very strange to decide to dig under it. It’s a shallow mine, so it was probably just a couple of guys with a pick and shovel who followed the gold vein where they could. It wasn’t really a very well-planned operation.”

Whatever the mineshaft’s history, Dornner was glad to see it vanish.

“Within a week of my call, there were people out here looking at the site to see how they could close it, and now it’s completely inaccessible, so I’m very happy,” she said. “As soon as I said I was worried about my child, they were on top of it.”

 

 

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