The invitingly cool air, exhaled from the mouth of an abandoned mine here, will be stifled this week when a U.S. Forest Service crew blasts the dangerous hole shut.
It’s part of a campaign to find and seal some of the estimated 1,000 inactive lead and silver mines in North Idaho that were sunk into mountainsides more than 70 years ago.
“I’ve been in a lot of these mines around here and I won’t go in them any more because it’s too dangerous,” said Jim Langdon, a Forest Service engineer. “They are full of loose rocks and rotten timbers that could collapse any time.”
The dilapidated caverns have become home to teenage partiers and amateur spelunkers, in one case with a deadly result.
Last year a mine on Lake Pend Oreille claimed the lives of two curious explorers. Stephen Novak, 28, son of former Spokane city manager Terry Novak, and Christopher Ost-Homstad, 22, went into a mine full of bad air. The two died inside from carbon monoxide poisoning. That mine since has been sealed with metal bars.
Forest Service crews will blow shut two dangerous caves in Clark Fork this week and seal another eight with gates. Langdon and three other workers drilled holes into the rock around the mine entrances Tuesday to hold the explosives.
“We had talked about doing this for some time but the project was a couple of years out,” Langdon said. “It was accelerated somewhat by the deaths last year.”
The first mines to be closed are all near the University of Idaho Clark Fork Field Campus, about 30 miles east of Sandpoint. People have cut chains on gates and dug holes around the bars to get in and explore the mines.
Langdon has found old campfires and piles of beer cans in some of them.
“We have kids partying inside them and that’s problem,” he said, pointing to a pile of bowling ballsized rocks that fell from the ceiling of one mine. Just past the rocks were beer cans and deeper inside was a box that had been full of old explosives Langdon removed last year.
“There are all kinds of nasty hazards in these,” he said. “It’s an adventure to go in them and I can appreciate that, but if you don’t know what you are doing it’s real easy to get hurt.”
Many of the mines date back to 1913 and once produced lead, silver and zinc.
Ken Kinucan, who manages the Clark Fork Campus, said the hillside behind the campus is pocked with old mines and exploratory tunnels called adits. Some are only 10 feet long, while others wind nearly 500 feet into the mountain. Several openings blast out refrigerator-cold air, which can be tempting on a hot summer day.
“It’s been real difficult to keep people out. They don’t realize the mines are extremely dangerous,” Kinucan said. “I went in one about 200 feet and there was a big place where the roof collapsed, filling most of the tunnel. The rock is very unstable.”
Langdon plans to install more impenetrable gates to prevent any more accidents inside the caverns. They won’t all be blasted closed because the mines are home to several colonies of bats, including the endangered Townsend bat.
The bat, which is found in very few states, has extremely long ears and uses the caves to hibernate during winter.
Barry Keller, an Idaho State University ecology professor and curator of mammals for the state Museum of Natural History, is studying the Townsend bat. The bats have been dying off and no one knows why, he said.
Keller, an experienced caver, found a Townsend bat in one mine near Clark Fork and plans to inspect several others this month before they are closed.
“Most people misunderstand bats,” Keller said. “They are very important for insect control, eating crop pests and mosquitoes.”
A bat can eat it’s own body weight in insects in one night, Keller said.
Bat Conservation International is helping the Forest Service design structures that will allow bats access to the mines and still keep humans out. Some of the work will be done by volunteer cavers from North Idaho, Spokane and Boise, Langdon said. Closing the 10 mines in Clark Fork will cost about $12,000.
Later this month, the Idaho Geologic Survey will launch a search for all the abandoned mines on Forest Service land. A list of the most dangerous sites will be drafted and more of the mines will be slated for closure, said Dave Wright, Supervisor for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
“There could be a thousand or more and each is a potential killer,” he said.
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