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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Forest Service Settles In Mine Fatalities Suit But North Idaho Forests Riddled With Potential For More Deaths

The families of two men killed in an abandoned North Idaho mine have settled a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for $10,000.

But the problem with hundreds of such deathtraps remaining in the forests remains unsolved. About 400 mine tunnels exist in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests alone. Any of them could be lethal, according to the Idaho Geological Survey.

Add mining on private land, and there could be as many as 1,500 sites in North Idaho with old shafts, the Forest Service said.

“These are places people do not belong in,” said Earl Bennett, state geologist. “But, my God, they are like a magnet. People can’t keep their noses out of them.”

The Geological Survey has been looking for abandoned mine tunnels and adits - tunnels with only one opening - for several years. The tragedy that killed Stephen Novak and Christopher Ost-Homstad in June 1995 added urgency to that effort.

The state Geologic Survey was reviewing North Idaho historical documents and mine records that summer, in preparation for field surveys to find the adits and tunnels, Bennett said. The Geologic Survey has since located some 400 old mine entrances.

It will take another summer to find all of the old mines in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. Then the investigation will focus on the Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forests.

The Forest Service has closed 25 of the most dangerous mine openings on the Panhandle Forests since 1995 and will tackle another 20 this summer, said Jim Northrup, of the Panhandle Forests.

The adit where Novak and Ost-Homstad died of carbon monoxide poisoning, located near Bayview, was closed almost immediately afterward.

The pair were out for a cruise on Lake Pend Oreille with Novak’s family. They had plans to map the inactive limestone and silver mine.

It was the day after Novak’s 28th birthday. Ost-Homstad was 22.

Novak and Ost-Homstad were overcome by carbon monoxide and died about 400 feet into the mine. Four other young explorers, who went into the shaft looking for the two men at the request of the families, were nearly asphyxiated.

Several hours later, other rescuers equipped with breathing equipment, found the bodies of Novak and Ost-Homstad. Mine experts estimated that carbon monoxide concentrations in the shaft were high enough to kill a person in 15 minutes.

It appears that a few weeks before, people sought shelter from the weather in the adit and built a fire, Bennett said. That would have consumed all of the good air in the tunnel.

“It takes a considerable period of time, if ever, for good air to get back in there,” Bennett said. “And the thing about bad air is you can go in there, take a couple of breaths, and go down.”

The families of Novak and Ost-Homstad agreed to settle the suit resulting from the Bayview area accident in December, said Ed Johnson, attorney for the families. “All I’m authorized to say is the case settled for $10,000.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Pam DeRusha characterized the settlement as “a fair compromise.”

The lawsuit was filed in June 1997 and did not ask for a specific amount of damages. However, in their initial claim against the Forest Service, filed in October 1996, each family asked for $1.5 million.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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