The death of an 11-year-old girl two years ago in Nye County is a chilling reminder of the danger that abandoned mines pose to an increasing population of Nevadans.
Bureau of Land Management officials are addressing the issue with a statewide assessment of more than 125,000 abandoned mine sites. And they are calling on the public to help out.
Meetings will be held in Reno and Las Vegas in the next two weeks to establish "hazards to human safety presented by the thousands of abandoned mines." Public comment, in combination with an environmental assessment, will be used to form a strategy for mine closures, said Chris Ross, head of the BLM project.
"Nevada has as many or more abandoned mines as the rest of the West combined," he said. "The issue is of particular concern near towns and recreation areas."
Several accidents - including the 1998 injuries of two men who fell 50 feet down a mine shaft in Clark County- have prompted the move. In all, the last 30 years have seen 13 people killed in abandoned Nevada mines.
"You don't have to be drunk or stupid too fall down one of these," Ross said. "Most of the time people slide into the mine on loose rock, or step into a vertical shaft in the dark."
Bob Stewart, who is also coordinating the project, emphasizes the danger.
"Years ago small miners, people like you and me, dug a hole into the hillside in search of fortune," he said. "If it didn't work out, they went bankrupt and left that hole behind.
"Now people are getting adventurous. They just walk in and sometimes fall down a shaft."
BLM workers and colleagues at the Nevada Division of Minerals estimate there are as many as 50,000 sites that pose some degree of physical hazard. Ross said the mining industry has also expressed concern and is helping the effort.
The division is using BLM grants to close mines through the Legislature-approved Abandoned Mine Lands Program. Fees paid by the minerals industry also go toward the program.
The Reno meeting will be 7 p.m. Aug.1 at the BLM office at 1340 Financial Boulevard. People may also write to P.O. Box 12000, Reno, Nev. 89520. The public comment period will end August 30.
If public and industry input points toward swift resolution of the problem, Stewart said an environmental impact study could be conducted as a preview for the mine closures. "What we are looking at now is scope," he said. "How far should we go in looking at this issue?"
Because laws that govern mine claims emphasize ownership, BLM and Minerals workers are strapped with the additional difficulty of identifying mines that are indeed abandoned.
"Untangling ownership is difficult," Stewart said. Although all the claims are registered with the division of minerals, the decades, and sometimes centuries, that have lapsed have left ownership questions unanswered. "We have to think of ways to protect the public and we don't own those holes," he said.
The division plans to notify claimants of their duty to close the mine. If closures are not made in a specified time frame, enforcement action can be taken.
When the project is done, the BLM expects that some of the most dangerous mines will be filled and some simply fenced off and posted.
Other components that will effect the development of safety standards are historic and cultural issues, geologic exploration and Native American ownership rights, Ross said.
If you go
What: Public meeting on mine safety measures.
When: Aug. 1, 7 p.m.
Where: BLM office, 1340 Financial Boulevard, Reno.