HELENA - On the side of a hill in Davis Gulch, on Helena’s south side, are two adits — tunnels dating back to the late 1800s, where miners explored for valuable minerals. Now, in the coming weeks, those tunnels are set to be closed off because of safety concerns.
This site is just one of many statewide, where the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Abandoned Mine Lands Program is addressing the safety and environmental effects of former mines. Now, the program ready to expand its operations, after receiving a big boost in funding.
“The mantra for the AML programs nationally is ‘Stay out, stay alive,’” said program manager Bill Snoddy. “Abandoned mines are dangerous.”
Snoddy says the program has closed off the Davis Gulch adits before, but people trying to get in reopened them. The city of Helena, which owns the surrounding land, asked the department for help because of safety concerns.
“There’s bad air, there’s bad rocks, there could be something living back there that you don’t want to find,” Snoddy said. “That’s why we close all the portals that we can – to protect the public, not trying to deny access to something cool.”
One of the adits will be sealed with concrete, while the other will have a heavy metal grate bolted over it.
Snoddy says DEQ has identified almost 7,000 abandoned mines across Montana, and they suspect there are more they don’t know about – in every county in the state. The AML program only addresses hard rock mines like the ones in Davis Gulch when they present immediate safety issues. In general, they focus on abandoned coal mines.
“Just this morning, I got a call from a fellow in Roundup: His backyard disappeared – or a big chunk of it did – into a mine collapse, an old coal mine,” Snoddy said. “The roof got weak, and it collapsed – left him with about a 12-foot hole in his backyard. That’s going to be very high priority.”
DEQ’s AML program was established in 1980. Leaders say abandoned mines can create a wide variety of issues, from coal seam fires that can start wildfires on the surface, to collapses and open shafts that can injure people, livestock, and wildlife, to acidic mine drainage.
The program has been funded through a fee on coal production. Snoddy says that funding has generally decreased in recent years – bringing in $3.3 million last year.
But when Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last year, it provided millions more dollars for abandoned mine reclamation. Montana will receive about $4.6 million a year for the next 15 years.
“That gives us the ability to hire more people, to get out and address problems we just didn’t have the time or the money to get to before,” said Snoddy.
If you have any questions, or if you suspect you might have an abandoned mine on your property, you’re encouraged to contact the Abandoned Mine Lands program.
“The Abandoned Mines program is great,” Snoddy said. “It helps the people of Montana. We don’t charge people, typically, to go out and help them.”