Michael Satre’s phone started ringing early on Sunday morning last week because co-workers feared it would not be long before there were reports of someone trapped or hurt in one of Juneau’s hundreds of abandoned mines.
The calls and text messages corresponded to a Juneau Empire story about a local explorer who spends his days off work trekking Juneau’s forests searching for and venturing into abandoned mine shafts around the capital city.
“Throughout the country there are relics or abandoned mine shafts that are attractive to go explore,” said Michael Satre, the manager of government and community relations at Hecla Greens Creek Mining Company. “We understand the fascination of going to explore, but when looking at the potential dangers there’s a reason federal and state agencies have adopted the motto, ‘Stay out, stay alive.’”
Still, for Brian Weed, Juneau’s mine exploring adventurer, life is about taking risks, and his mine fascination is no exception.
“Yes, mine exploring is dangerous — life is dangerous,” Weed said. “But you can be safer by wearing helmets, lights, gas detector, basic tools ... telling and showing people on a map where you’re going is important too.
“All adventures have risks,” he added.
The tunnels present danger in primarily four ways: the ground in the area may be unstable, which could lead to a tunnel collapsing; the atmosphere in the tunnel may not be adequate for proper breathing; in water-filled tunnels there may be shafts that walkers could fall into, or sharp metal objects under the water; and it is more difficult to receive help if an injury happens underground, Satre said.
“Given the hazards abandoned mines present, the lack of knowledge about the way the runnel was cut and the ground conditions in the area, plus the chance of a bad atmosphere or injury, we don’t believe it’s a risk worth taking,” he said.
Perhaps the most dangerous risk is the possibility of running into an atmosphere incapable of supporting human life, Satre said. He added that carbon monoxide rich or oxygen-deficient environments are the most likely scenarios in Juneau-area tunnels.
“The rock may look like it will stay another hundred years, but the air can’t support life,” he said. “There’s no tell-tale way to know you’re affected until it’s too late.”
Symptoms of oxygen deficiency include fatigue and reduced response times, so it is possible an explorer would sit down thinking they just need a rest only to get themselves in serious trouble, he added.
“It doesn’t take much to get in a state of oxygen deficiency, and it might incapacitate you before you can get back to fresh air,” Satre said. “That’s the truly unseen danger.”
A lack of ventilation in the abandoned mines is the leading cause of unsafe breathing environments, he added.
In the professional mines run by Hecla Greens Creek, between 350,000 and 375,000 cubic feet of fresh air is continually being pumped into the tunnels to maintain safe environments for the workers, and there are numerous air quality monitors set up throughout.
The Mining Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor maintains a database of accidents from explorers venturing into abandoned mines, quarries and gravel pits.
Previously this year, a New Jersey man drowned in an abandoned mine, and three others have died in quarry-related accidents around the country.
The mines present such a danger that the professional miners at Hecla Greens Creek recommend sealing off the abandoned mines permanently — however, doing so could prove difficult due to mines being on land owned by several different entities, Satre said.
“You can still see the mine was there and see historic buildings around the area, but the risk of going in is too great to go unmitigated,” Satre said.
He added that Alaska should follow the lead of other states that have begun sealing off abandoned mine hazards.
On the Nevada page of the Bureau of Land Management website, it states, “The BLM Nevada abandoned mine program is continuously seeking and closing old mine hazards statewide, with special attention to those which are close to inhabited places and areas of high public use.”
The program closes about 400 mines every year, according to the organization.
New mines built today would have to be sealed if operations ceased, but the abandoned mines dotting Juneau’s countryside predate the law necessitating that, Satre said.
“We shouldn’t allow these underground hazards to be available to the community at large,” he said.