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Team Seals Off Hazardous Mines

Faced with about 47,000 old shafts, state agency plugs as many as it can.

March 10, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

RIDGECREST, Calif. — The gaping mouths of abandoned mines dot the Spangler Hills east of this Mojave Desert town. Camouflaged by creosote bushes and tucked below sandy mounds that entice off-road enthusiasts, the remnants of California's fevered Gold Rush invite disaster.

On a recent morning, Douglas W. Craig peered past rotting timbers into one shaft, where a 14-year-old Fresno boy was rescued last month after he flew off his dirt bike and fell in.

Braced against a biting wind, Craig then stepped back to watch a bulldozer plug the hole. The mine has honeycombed the hillside for at least 70 years. Now, in a matter of hours, nearly all its tempting surface traces were gone.

"There's something satisfying about seeing a problem solved," said Craig, manager of the California Department of Conservation's Abandoned Mine Lands Unit.

The task seems simple enough. But it isn't.

Craig's office estimates that 47,000 abandoned mines pepper the state. Resources to address the problem are scarce, scattered among a handful of state and federal agencies. The money that is available has been earmarked mostly to clean up mines that leach mercury into the water supply. As a result, the tens of thousands of shafts and horizontal adits that pose physical hazards to a burgeoning population have been largely ignored.

Now, at the direction of the state Legislature, Craig's office has allotted half of its $250,000 budget to starting to fix the problem. By summer, about 70 shafts and side tunnels around the state will be filled with dirt, plugged with polyurethane foam or fitted with horizontal gates that keep people out while protecting sensitive bat habitats.

To stretch the money, Craig has teamed up with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the state Lands Commission.

The Spangler Hills job, for example, cost just $600 -- to rent the bulldozer. The BLM's Ridgecrest field office completed the necessary environmental reviews and provided the labor.

It's anybody's guess whether Craig's small slice of funding will survive the current budget crunch. But this year's work has earned more than its share of gratitude from other strapped agencies.

'Busy Little Beavers'

"These guys are just busy little beavers," Linn Gum, assistant field manager for the BLM's Ridgecrest field office, said as he huddled in his denim jacket and baseball cap to watch the shaft's opening disappear. "We just can't thank the Department of Conservation enough for the opportunity to make this a safer place to play."

Gum estimates that there are thousands of old mines dotting his district's 1.9 million acres of desert, a designated open area.

On weekends before the summer's 110-degree summer heat cooks the earth, hordes of off-road vehicles run free in one of the few remaining areas where such uses aren't barred. The mounds created when the mines were excavated often tempt dirt bikers, who are surprised, after they make a jump, to see a shaft as deep as 200 feet.

Elsewhere, encroaching suburbia and increased recreational activity have brought people into closer contact with the pockmarked evidence of the state's mining heyday.

Craig has seen plans for one proposed subdivision where the property line was 200 feet from a gaping mine shaft. One mine in Northern California's Tahoe National Forest sits within several hundred feet of a bus stop. Craig's team will work with the U.S. Forest Service to close it with a foam plug.

In these desert expanses near Ridgecrest, the holes are as much a part of the landscape as creosote and rusty tin cans.

In Randsburg, touted on a fading roadside billboard as one of the state's "living ghost towns," one mine edged with rotted timbers sits across the street from the town's historic white wooden church. Just a few miles down the road, another peers blankly from the earth just feet from a child's swing set.

Other agencies are concerned about the problem and working to solve it, but tight budgets -- and in some cases low priority -- mean the efforts have been spotty.

"Trying to get money to deal with those situations has been a fight, and so far I've lost," said Dick Forester, who heads the abandoned mine efforts for the BLM out of its Sacramento offices. "It's a time bomb."

'Beer Can Index'

Forester gauges the amount of use a mine gets by "the beer can index" -- from the waste that partying explorers leave behind.

The temptations to adventurers are many. And the results can be fatal.

Michael Markel -- the Fresno boy who was hauled with scratches and bruises from the Spangler Hills mine shaft in early January -- was among the fortunate ones. Another boy, a 10-year-old from Los Angeles, was even luckier. He was pulled from a mine about 20 miles from Ridgecrest in May after he skidded off his dirt bike and fell 200 feet into the 300-foot shaft.

But the endings are sometimes tragic. In June, two Orange County brothers drowned in the silted waters inside the Santa Ana Mountains' Blue Light Mine.

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