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Unmarked Mine Menace

June 28, 2002

For decades, the Blue Light Mine in the Cleveland National Forest has attracted adventurous souls. Conquering it, or another of the abandoned mines dotting the area's landscape, is a local rite of passage. But this week the Blue Light's murky waters and toxic gas pockets claimed the lives of two young explorers, one of whom had just graduated from high school.

A culture does itself more harm than good by trying to protect its youth from all risk. But this mine was a deathtrap. Signs warning of the threat of hypothermia in the dark water might have dissuaded the brothers from diving in wearing T-shirts. Signs noting the deadly gases inside would almost certainly have sent them in search of a different feat of daring.

The U.S. Forest Service oversees the Cleveland's 427,000 acres. Officials say there is no money available to seal the mine's eight openings, let alone to close the area's hundreds of other mine shafts. In fact, there are more than 46,000 abandoned mines and quarries in California. The Bureau of Land Management tries to post signs at those in its 15 million acres in California, but budgetary and personnel restraints severely restrict this effort. Indeed, government agencies close only a few mines each year, and those threatening the natural environment get priority.

Even if the money were available, however, we wouldn't want to see forests and historic areas littered with the sorts of fortifications that are necessary to keep determined adventure seekers at bay. It is quintessentially American to yearn for adventure, to want to test oneself against risks that fear of litigation and modern conveniences have all but eliminated from most people's lives. But reasonable risk-taking is based on a grasp of the dangers involved.

The Forest Service should post signs outside the Blue Light and any other mine known to be dangerous. Other agencies should follow suit. These would warn off all but the stupid or suicidal--people who simply cannot be protected from themselves.

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