In this job, you get the shaft

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State employee works to seal inactive mines in county

By Ian Neligh

With a cloud of dust billowing behind her, Deb Zack drove her black Jeep along the narrow dirt roads high above Idaho Springs. She navigated the sketchy dirt lanes on the north side of Virginia Canyon with familiarity.

Zack is a project manager and reclamation specialist with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety’s inactive mine program.

And she’s been quite busy.

It’s estimated that Clear Creek County has some 3,000 inactive mines, with 22,000 abandoned mines in the state.

It’s Zack’s job to find the mines and permanently seal them. While she covers several counties, Clear Creek and Gilpin get the lion’s share of her attention.

“Jefferson and Douglas counties are pretty minimal as far as work for me goes,” Zack said. “There is a higher concentration of mines in Gilpin County just generally around Central City and Black Hawk. … It is a little more spread out in Clear Creek County.”

Zack said that because many Clear Creek mines are in steep terrain, they lead to more water-quality issues.

“It’s kind of spread out a bit, because there’s plenty to do between Silver Plume, Georgetown and Empire,” Zack said.

Closing mines can mean filling them full of rocks or installing metal grates that keep humans out but allow bats and other animals to enter. Other times the task is more technically difficult and requires a complicated engineering project.

Zack has sealed as many as 110 mines in a year. Since the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety’s inactive mine program started in the mid-’80s, nearly 1,000 mines have been closed in Clear Creek and 5,700 statewide.

Dangerous places

Since 1955, at least 18 people have died in abandoned mines in Colorado, and every year people or their pets have to be rescued.

The tales of those who died in abandoned mines are as varied as they are grisly:

• Two men dug into a mine from above and came across bad air; they were found dead three days later.

• A teenager exploring a mine fell to his death when the ladder he was using broke.

• A Fort Carson soldier exploring a mine fell to his death.

• Two young men were four-wheeling when their Jeep plunged 34 feet down a shaft. Once the vehicle was removed, one man’s body was found more then 300 feet below the surface.

Zack said she’s noticed a trend of outdoor enthusiasts, four-wheelers and mountain bikers in areas where there are still open mines.

“What I would want is for people to generally stay … on the public lands and stay on the trails,” Zack said.

Zack gets out of her Jeep and makes her way down a steep mountainside and, after navigating a rocky slope, walks around several unmitigated mines on private property.

The slope shows a network of mountain bike tracks dangerously close to the shafts. One mine is filled with tires and has an old couch leaning into it.

“This is really a public safety issue and a liability issue for the owners,” Zack said, peering over the edge. “What I’m trying to basically ask is that you allow us to get in, to do the mine closure work before you start flinging yourself down abandoned mine shafts, because then you’re potentially putting rescuers’ lives in danger.”

Minimal disturbance

Zack’s job isn’t always the safest. She drives into areas that often don’t see a lot of motorized vehicles, and abandoned mines are inherently dangerous.

“We thankfully have a lot of security protocols in place. We now carry rescue beacons,” Zack said.

The beacon allows Zack to call for help if she’s stuck or trapped.

But there are other dangers.

Zack said abandoned mines can provide shelter for bears and mountain lions, and sometimes there’s evidence that people are living in them.

“Some of these (mines) are from 150 years ago, and you’ve got to imagine that mountainside timbers put in place by really knowledgeable guys at the time probably aren’t holding up so well 150 years later,” Zack said. “I try to limit my exposure inside. I’ve got my hard hat, my safety equipment and my gas meter in the Jeep for times when I do.”

When closing a mine, Zack and the work crews make as little disturbance as possible.

“We do our best, but the fewer times we need to go in there, obviously, the better.”

Contact Ian Neligh at couranteditor@evergreenco.com, and check www.clearcreekcourant.com for updates and breaking news.