Illegal mine entry creates unnecessary risk to more than just the trespasser

EAGLE RIVER — In a recent press release regarding the sentencing of three local men on trespassing charges at the Copper Falls Mine, in Houghton Township, Keweenaw County Sheriff Curt Pennala added that in addition to being illegal to enter a mine without authorization, it also dangerous.

It not only puts the people entering the mine at a high risk of injury, it endangers the safety and lives of the first responders who have to rescue the individuals.

“We have had cases where people have gotten stuck inside of the shafts themselves,” said Pennala. “Now, they’re putting rescuers” lives at risk by having to go and rescue those people.”

Pennala said that a number of years ago, his department responded to a call of two trespassers in an area mine. One of them became stuck, requiring a rescue.

“Many of the sites where we’ve had problems have been capped or filled in,” he said, “but there still continues to be problems.”

Old shafts, long abandoned, continue to open up as the shaft collars erode, causing the caps to collapse. In addition, in many instances people dig their way through the blockages that the county intentionally put in place.

A major concern that arises with mine rescues, said Pennala, is the reluctance to send in first responders who are not certified or trained in mine rescue and do not have the proper rescue equipment. First responders, fire fighters, search and rescue, are volunteers in nearly every case, and have families they leave at home when they respond to a call. In not being properly trained in mine search and rescue, those families are also at an unnecessary risk of losing that family member/volunteer. And while the volunteers are not trained to safely enter abandoned mines, neither are the people they have to risk their lives to rescue.

“Now that leads us to the point where we have to start having conversations on part of our rope rescue team being trained in confined-space rescue, as well,” said Pennala.

The mines in Keweenaw County are old, were worked and abandoned long before 20th century safety practices were introduced. In the majority of the old mines, they were supported with wooden tree trunks, called stulls, rather than rock pillars. Over the years, the damp nature of a mine has rotted the wooden ceiling supports, leaving the ceiling, or hanging wall at risk of collapse. In fact, that happens frequently in the Copper Country.

In 2008, a 225-foot fall down the Quincy Mining Company No. 2 Shaft in Quincy Township claimed the life of a Dollar Bay man. In the rescue attempt, members of the Calumet Township fire and rescue department were able to rappel down into the shaft from inside the shaft/rock house. In that case, the members were trained and had proper equipment.

For example, in May, 2014, a collapse of the opening of Huron Mine Shaft No. 8, off Superior Road north of Paradise Road in Portage Township occured and was discovered by two people walking near the shaft opening.

At the time of the collapse, City Manager Eric Waara said the probable cause of the cave-in was melting snow and recent rains.

“The point is,” said Pennala, “you’re not only risking your own life when you illegally enter a mine, you’re risking the lives of the volunteers who are going to have to come out and get you.”


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