ARRA Abandoned Mine Closing Project – Phase I

USFS Success Stories

July 07, 2010


Over 100 years after the last echo of the miners’ pick was heard and the last pack mule had climbed the steep rocky trails, the sound of human activity once again reverberated off the rock cliffs in the Norwich area of the Ottawa National Forest. This time, however, it was not the sounds of sinking new shafts, but rather those of closing the century-old mine shafts with iron grates. And the noise now heard was not that of mining corporations looking for a fortune in copper, but that of a Michigan construction company weathering the sluggish economy through a contract funded with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) money.

When the Ottawa National Forest acquired tens of thousands of acres of forests, water, and wildlife in the 1930′s, it also became the owner of dozens of old mine shafts and adits that remained as the miners had left them many decades earlier. All of these mine openings posed safety risks and too many were downright dangerous with depths of several hundred feet or more. In addition to the safety factor posed by these deep shafts, a recently detected disease was beginning to decimate bat populations throughout the eastern US, particularly in hibernating areas such as caves and mines.

Closing shafts that can be easily reach by vehicles can be costly enough, but when the shafts occur in steep, rocky, and remote country without roads, the cost can easily exceed available funds. The Forest was receiving modest funding through annual appropriations, but much more money was needed to make all of the abandoned mines safe. An unexpected source of funding in the form of ARRA proved to be the answer.

To take advantage of this funding meant promptly conducting a NEPA analysis, preparing contract specifications, arranging a pre-bid field review, and ultimately awarding a contract. Prep work was completed during the fall of 2009, and in November a pre-bid field trip was held. Scheduling a field trip in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in November is a gamble with weather, and the odds are seldom in favor of those doing the scheduling. Never-the-less the weather was accommodating and ten people representing seven contractors spent the day visiting the project site.

Industrial Maintenance Services, Inc. (IMS) from Escanaba, Michigan, was the successful bidder on the contract and they were excited to begin work. All the Forest needed now was someone to oversee the contract. Geologist Tim Buxton agreed to be the Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative (COTR), but because Tim resides in New Hampshire, he needed someone to provide the day-to-day oversight. Once more ARRA came to the rescue. Using the authority to hire retired annuitants granted by ARRA, the Forest was able to coax Robert Wagner out of retirement to serve as the on-the-ground inspector.

Work began with the moving of equipment and materials to the project site. It was well known that access to the site would be as great a challenge as fabricating the closures. The rugged, unroaded terrain required a combination of snowmobiles, ATVs, hand-carrying, and even a team of mules to move tons of iron and equipment to the mine shafts.

Delivering materials and equipment to the project site was only half the battle. The other half of the fight was to devise a safe way to construct an iron grate over the mine opening. This is where Steve Smith came in. Steve, a bat researcher, spelunker, and mine safety expert from the local area was hired by the contractor to secure a safe working area and to teach the contractor’s employees how to properly harness and work from a safety line.

The contractor started constructing the closures in the middle of May, and even though frequent rain caused delays, by early July, the Phase 1 contract was completed and nine mine openings had been successfully and safely closed. Phase 2 has subsequently been awarded and the closure of an additional 21 mine openings is scheduled to begin in late July.

The ARRA funds received by the Ottawa will not only provide work to two Michigan construction companies, but will also have the multiplier effect of supporting local businesses and communities. With these funds the Forest will be able to remediate the unsafe condition posed by the abandoned mines in a matter of months, and not the years it may have taken. For the Norwich area, closing these mines is the first step in developing an interpretive site planned to highlight the mining history of the area.


Story submitted by: Chuck Frank, Ottawa National Forest