Why you should care
Because while man-made, some of these sites could be reclaimed or reused to help the environment or local economies.
Hi Friend, it’s me, The Tick, and I’ve got exciting news! I have joined OZY as an editor – of the super variety! It’s a job with words, and grammar and stuff! Because there’s only one thing mightier than the pen: Me! And from Aug 25, you can watch me be mighty on Amazon Prime.
Somewhere in western Australia, a man records his trek as he passes rotting wood and moves deeper into a dark tunnel of an abandoned gold mine. An eerie sound spooks some viewers: Is that wind — or whispering voices? While the Blair Witch– like handiwork runs only about a minute long, the video has been shared by both The Sun and Daily Star newspapers in the U.K.
On the other side of the world, somewhere in the eastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia, a group of Maritimers shares videos of their escapades as they sneak through old hard-rock mines. They’ve also garnered national media attention, though few know exactly who these men are. Anonymous online, their faces appear intentionally blurred in video clips, and they didn’t respond to OZY’s requests for comment.
Curiosity has long coaxed people into old mines, but could today’s wanderers be part of a new rural, rooftopping-like trend? That movement took off in urban centers after gutsy photographers, Instagrammers and social media climbers risked — and sometimes lost — their lives while capturing breathtaking aerial shots atop skyscrapers and construction sites. Now, some folks who crawl through the tight passageways of mines in search of unique footage of their own are being celebrated as “intrepid explorers,” while others are still trying to garner a wider following online. There’s “Outdoor Rob” in Ontario, an Instagrammer in Idaho, plus plenty of people in both public and private Facebook groups who show off all sorts of unauthorized explorations.
This interest in old mines coincides with renewed attention for the livelihood of active or former miners. President Donald Trump has praised the opening of some new mines in America’s coal country.
Some mine hunters who post to social media should be considered ‘pioneers’ for ‘bringing to light these forgotten places.’
Chris Wiebe, National Trust for Canada
Meanwhile, controversies abroad have fueled long-running debates over how resources and gems should best be sourced. That’s helped inspire the premise of National Geographic’s Mine Hunters, a reality show that began airing last year about a team that visits ethical, small-scale mines in far-flung locales.
There’s also been a broader discussion in different countries about how to handle the numerous sites where operators have rejected custodial responsibility for decommissioning a mine or providing remediation and reclamation support. (In some cases, operators have long since gone out of business.) Some safer ones have been transformed into tourist spots, including the Old Hundred Gold Mine in Colorado and a coal mining settlement in Norway. Others are now wildlife refuges. Certain surface mines in Illinois, southern Indiana and western Kentucky have been reclaimed by wetlands, forests or farms, says Phil Smith, director of communications and governmental affairs at the United Mine Workers of America. And old limestone mines, in particular, can make great storage bunkers — preferred for being cool and stronger than concrete, some have been taken over by companies looking to house film negatives, cheese and even a massive data-storage center that’s 220 feet underground.
But determining exactly where, and how many, old mines exist is a challenge for many countries. In Canada, they’re found in all mining jurisdictions but aren’t well-documented in terms of their total number or health and environmental impacts, warns the National Orphaned and Abandoned Mines Initiative, which was created in response to a request from federal, provincial and territorial mines ministers. In Australia, more than 60,000 mines, as well as features such as tailings dams and old mine shafts, reportedly sit unused. At least one is becoming an energy storage system combined with a solar farm, while some other mined land is being restored as pastures for cattle. But the best way forward is far from clear: Earlier this year, the Australian Senate announced an inquiry into how mining companies manage the rehabilitation of mining and resource projects.
Mining experts do tend to agree on one thing though: Dangers abound in many former sites. Yes, there’s always the risk of getting lost or crushed in a cave-in. But parts of coal mines can also fill up with water or methane gas, or be void of oxygen in what’s known as “black damp.” The proper sealing technique, Smith says, includes filling an entrance with concrete, then barricading it shut. “There are many abandoned mines in southern West Virginia and western Kentucky where that hasn’t been done,” he warns. “People can get access to them, and there are people who get killed every year going into them for thrills or searching for wiring they can reuse or sell for copper.”
To be sure, not all abandoned-mine enthusiasts are thrill-seekers. During its heyday, Wallingford-Back Mine in Quebec was one of the largest feldspar and quartz mines in North America. It’s been closed for decades, though over the past two years, it’s been inundated with visitors who ice-skate in the winter, paddle in the summer, or just explore the area’s massive rock pillars and turquoise waters. But with no official parking, garbage cans or bathrooms, and with contaminated water and rocks occasionally falling from the ceiling, the site has deteriorated. The local government considered demolishing it — until thousands signed a petition to protect it. Newly erected barricades and a deep trench now keep everyone out.
Since the site wasn’t destroyed, it could be seen as a victory for the National Trust for Canada, a charity that promotes historic spaces. It included Wallingford-Back Mine as one of its top 10 endangered places this year — the first time an abandoned mine has made its annual list, which started in 2005. But Chris Wiebe, the group’s manager for heritage policy and public programs, says the brouhaha also shows how some mine hunters who post to social media should be considered “pioneers” for “bringing to light these forgotten places, just like Wallingford, and how beautiful and meaningful they are from a historical and heritage perspective. They’re performing an important role.”