The rescue of three people from a shut-down coal mine in West Virginia last week focused new attention on the hundreds of thousands of inactive or abandoned mines across the country, which can pose major environmental and safety risks.
Some sites, like the Rock House Powellton mine in Clear Creek, W.Va., where the rescue took place, are simply inactive, meaning the owners could restart operations. Others, particularly in the West, have been abandoned for decades, posing big challenges to government agencies and private entities that seek to clean up or redevelop the sites.
But some have found creative uses for old mining sites, taking advantage of their expansive size, unparalleled acoustics and other unique characteristics. Here’s a look at the problem, and some of the most intriguing solutions.
Why are former mines so hazardous?
Government officials have long pleaded with residents to stay out of mines, warning that hazards are not always immediately apparent to trespassers. Water-filled quarries may hide old machinery or rock ledges. Vertical shafts hundreds of feet deep may be hidden by overgrown vegetation. And soil and water could be contaminated if proper environmental remediation was not completed.
A not-so-subtle publicity campaign by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is titled “Stay Out – Stay Alive.” The campaign ramps up its announcements during the summer, when residents tend to venture out to explore former mine sites. Each year, dozens of people — often teenagers and young adults — are killed or injured during such adventures, the office warns.
The West Virginia rescue illustrates the dangers
The mine where the Dec. 12 rescue took place was shut down two years ago, according to records kept by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The operator, Elk Run Coal Company, was acquired last month by Contura Energy, a Tennessee-based coal company.
A spokeswoman for Contura said the site had been properly sealed when it was shut down, as required by state law. It’s not clear how the group — which the authorities said was trying to steal copper — was able to get into the underground mine, which spans more than 1,000 acres. The Raleigh County prosecutor, Kristen Keller, said her office was investigating.
While the search was still underway, Gov. Jim Justice issued an angry statement, saying that entering an inactive mine was “extremely irresponsible behavior that puts our first responders and mine safety crews in unsafe situations.”
Rescue workers encountered dangerously low oxygen levels and had to pump in fresh air and clear standing water. They eventually progressed 4,000 feet into the mine, with assistance from the West Virginia National Guard and other agencies.
Kayla Williams, 25, Erica Treadway, 31, and Cody Beverly, 21, were rescued after four days in the mine, which is about 30 miles southeast of Charleston. Eddie Williams, 43, had escaped earlier.
The group told reporters that they could barely move because there was so little oxygen in the mine, and they drank water from a stream inside the mine to survive. It seemed as if they had been trapped for 10 or 11 days, Mr. Beverly told NBC News. At times, they thought they were hallucinating.
“This is the biggest lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,” Mr. Beverly said.
Around the world, old mines are used as spas, theme parks and hotels
Once they’re shut down permanently, former mining sites can be redeveloped by companies who seek out their wide-open space and unique topography.
In Sweden, a former limestone quarry is now a renowned venue for summertime opera concerts. In the Transylvania region of Romania, a former salt mine is now a sprawling entertainment complex that includes a theme park and spa. In Shanghai, a luxury hotel built in an old stone quarry boasts dramatic views of a waterfall that pours into the bottom of the massive ditch.
There are many examples in the United States, too. In Gilbert, Minn., Lake Ore-Be-Gone was created from three open-pit iron ore mines, and now offers scuba divers a chance to see the “sunken treasures” at its bottom. A state agency has introduced more than 210,000 pounds of fish in mine-pit lakes in the area since 1984, and in 2015, one lucky fisherman caught a 16-pound lake trout.
And in Kentucky, the Louisville Mega Cavern, a massive adventure park in a former limestone quarry, offers dirt-bike racing, a zip line and an aerial ropes course — all underground. (Some of the benefits: no need to worry about rain or sunburns.)
Companies are also redeveloping mines as solar farms and data centers
In Pennsylvania and Missouri, among other places, data companies have set up servers in former mines. The ultra-secure facilities attract customers looking to protect their data from intruders and storms. Some are entirely underground, and even invisible on Google Maps.
And in West Virginia, local groups are looking to revive agriculture and boost renewable energy as the local economy shifts away from coal. An organization called Reclaim Appalachia has set out to convert old mining sites into farms and solar-panel fields.
A 2012 Environmental Protection Agency report touted the benefits of wind-power projects on abandoned mine sites. The location is often ideal: on large plots of land far from town, but near roads and power lines.
The report argued that cleaning up the sites and creating jobs would benefit local economies, and noted that wind-power projects were underway on former mining sites in Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.