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How to close a mine in 10 days

From welded grates to polyurethane foam, this is how Moab’s abandoned mines are shut down.

(Photo provided by Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining) The now-sealed Tintic Standard No. 2 shaft, near Eureka, Utah.

While uranium mining might soon see a phoenix-like rebirth in Moab, Victoria Havens is still cleaning up from its last heyday.

Havens, the minerals and geology staff officer for the Manti-La Sal National Forest, led a team that closed abandoned mines on national forest lands last year. They have shuttered several dozen near Moab so far and will double the count next year.

The main reason? Public safety. Old mines — many featuring creaky infrastructure and dark, meandering passages — conjure up a host of perils for an intruder.

“It’s the physical dangers of going into the unknown that’s really unknown,” Havens said.

Reminders of uranium’s past

Many of the dangers inherent in the mines have to do with the way uranium ensconced itself in the Moab landscape.

Around Moab and Monticello, mines were mostly dug during the mid-century atomic boom for uranium and vanadium exploration. They are scattered across the region, usually in a specific rock layer: the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation.

“That was basically where all the uranium was found,” Havens said.

(Notably, the Morrison Formation also houses many of the dinosaur fossils found around Moab. Havens’ crew found and reported paleontological evidence in one mine.)

Because uranium is usually embedded within ancient water channels, Havens said, its deposits are about as unpredictable as a serpentine river. That means the mines can zig, zag and drop without warning.

“Sometimes you would get in [the rock] and then you might want to dig down 10 feet and start moving laterally again,” she said.

It’s a big danger for people nowadays, too.

“Maybe you have teenagers running around and see the hole and they go crawling back in there, and then they drop 10 feet and there’s no getting out of it,” Havens said.

Thankfully, she doesn’t know of anyone getting stuck in a mine on the Manti-La Sal Forest. But she has heard stories from other places.

There also is no telling how far back a mine could extend. Havens said she saw one that measured 750 feet deep. That was an adit, or a horizontal opening (as opposed to shafts, or vertical openings), which are most common in Moab.

“Because of the primitive nature of how they were going after the uranium with pick axes and hand-charged explosives, basically, a lot of them are adits,” Havens said. “There wasn’t a lot of them digging 300 feet down because it just wasn’t economical.”

With an estimated 17,000 old mines scattered across Utah, Havens acknowledged her project is only able to handle a sliver of the abandoned mines. Her team generally focuses on those most accessible to humans — near hiking or off-road trails, for example.

Because their funding comes from the U.S. Department of Energy, they also are only closing mines that were defense-related, “meaning the ore that came out of it probably went to help with the Manhattan Project,” said Havens, referring to the federal government’s World War II atomic bomb-building project.

The closure technique depends on the mine in question. If bats are roosting in the mine, Havens’ team will weld it closed with a steel grid that still allows small creatures to get in and out.

If the team finds bear scat — which hasn’t happened yet — they will wait to see if there are other available dens in the area.

“We don’t want to take dens away,” Havens said.

For most other mines, they will institute a “destructive closure” where they simply stuff the opening with a combination of rocks, dirt and polyurethane foam plugs.

“You want to really cover it up so erosion’s not going to open it back up,” Havens said.

Why you shouldn’t enter a mine — if bear scat isn’t enough

Havens recited a laundry list of mine dangers, mainly ceiling collapse. She said old mines are usually very unstable.

“The mining techniques that are around today to ensure the roof stays in place … are certainly different from back then, which was just [to] stick some timbers in there,” Havens said.

If mines are deep or have drop-offs, intruders can get lost or stuck. They might encounter bears or other predators that use the mine as a den. Havens noted, though, that you won’t face much exposure to radiation unless you’re inhaling lots of dust.

“It’s all a very stable mineral whenever it’s sitting in the earth,” Havens said.

Anyone who encounters a mine, Havens said, should refrain from entering it. They should instead report it to her at victoria.havens@usda.gov.

“I’d really love the location and a picture,” she said.

Anyone with mines on private land can also reach out.

This year, Havens’ team is hoping to close another 22 abandoned adits. She said the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining is working to close another 51 next year, while a private company is also funding some closures.

Those numbers could rise as crews often find unmapped mines during their work.

“That’s just the nature of it,” Havens said, “because people back then weren’t keeping data of every hole they dug.”

Between 20 and 30 people die on average each year in abandoned mines or quarries in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Land Management and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The vast majority of them are drownings followed by off-highway vehicle accidents. Most victims are young and male.

This article originally appeared in The Times-Independent.