Mines are some of the most dangerous worksites in the United States, but the inherent dangers associated with mines – falling rock, cave-ins, even drowning and falling hazards – linger long after the last bit of ore has been extracted and the mine abandoned. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), for every one of the 14,000 active mines in the U.S., there are about 36 inactive or closed mines scattered throughout the country. That’s about half a million potentially deadly mines.
Northeast Pennsylvania’s Republican Herald, which serves an area abundant in mining operations, reported last week on the dangers that nearby mines posed to local residents, especially children.
“High cliffs and water-filled pits are major dangers in active and inactive/abandoned surface or strip mining areas,” the Republican Herald report said, noting that “Drownings and falls are leading causes of death, along with all-terrain vehicle accidents and electrocutions.” The paper also observed that mining areas often lure local residents of all ages seeking recreational opportunities. Hikers, bike riders, ATV enthusiasts, swimmers, and even SCUBA divers of all ages have lost their lives in northeast Pennsylvania mines within the last 5 years.
Most recently, two teens from Girardville, Penn., became lost in an area under the control of Keystone Anthracite Co. while they were exploring an area replete with mining operations in Columbia County. The 13- and 14-year-old ran out of daylight and the moon was obscured by clouds, making visibility extremely low.
According to the Republican Herald, the active mining pit where the boys were lost had lights, “but in the dark the sheer drop would not be evident.” Other dangers were posed by “underground mines that could collapse, especially after the heavy rains … An apparently solid section of land could give way without warning.”
“Also, the rock walls can be weakened by freeze and thaw cycles over years, and even being at the base of a rock wall could be very dangerous if tons of rock slip away and fall.”
The Republican Herald quoted a Keystone Anthracite executive who warned that the area had been mined in the 1930s and 40s, making the exposed rock dangerous and unstable after 70-plus years. Also, trees at the edge of the mine pit have roots that penetrate and fracture rock, making the edge extremely unsteady and a danger to anyone on and beneath it.
Fortunately, the boys were found that same night by helicopter rescue and lifted to safety before either became seriously hurt or worse.
Last year, 20 people were killed in inactive mining areas, including 14 drownings and three ATV accidents. A particularly deadly year, as the Republican Herald notes, was 2007 when 37 people (non-miners) lost their lives in mining areas throughout the country: 15 by drowning, 15 by ATV accidents, two by falling, and the rest by other causes.
However, because MSHA logs these deaths as it hears about them from media reports, the actual number of deaths is likely much larger given that not all accidents are reported by newspaper and TV outlets.