Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Silverton Colorado - One of The Worst Mining Disasters That Never Happened
One of the worst mining disasters that never happened!
Mining disasters are always going to be a way of life for underground miners. It’s just part of the life of a miner. This doesn’t diminish the grief and sense of loss and the tragedy that we feel when someone is killed underground. These feelings are always followed by blame toward conspiracies toward the mining companies. Sometimes these conspiracies are well founded and sometimes it is bad engineering. And sometimes it is just bad luck.
It was just such a case of bad luck that happened in the Sunnyside mine at Silverton,Colorado’s mining disaster. The mine had worked its way under Lake Emma and the miners complained about the safety of the situation. The complaints were researched by the mining engineers and it was determined that the mine was well within the margin of safety. At a depth of 90 feet below the lake, the margin of safety was well within the limits. With the safety concerns addressed the mining company managers decided to go forward with removing the last pillar under the lake. This pillar was so rich in gold, a 4” seam of bright shiny gold ran the entire length of the pillar. This is where the bad luck comes in. The lake bottom sediment had filled and concealed a crevice that came out at the gold laden pillar underground. When the pillar was removed the miners discovered a “soft pocket” of was made of glacial rock flour. Glacial rock flour is just what it sounds like; rocks that have been ground by glaciers into flour. It was worked a little to find its limits. It ended up being about twenty feet long and four feet wide, but more scary was that the top could not be found and this spooked the miners, who refused to re-enter the area. The new plan was to drain the lake the following summer so the gold ore could be retrieved. This was sort of the calm of good luck before the outpouring of bad luck. Sometime after the last workers clocked out on Saturday, the flour plug gave way to the force of water above it. This deluge of water filled the mine and emptied through the lower mine portals completely emptying the lake in only a couple of hours. The lake covered a couple of acres of land. Rocks, glacier till, and flour plugged every nook and cranny of all the mine workings with natural clay-like cement.
Financially, this was a disaster. In the way of lives, it was one of the worst mining disasters that never happened. The lake broke through on a Sunday. The only day the mine was completely shut down. No miners were hurt in the accident. If it had happened on a regular work day, an average of 130 men would have been underground. It is most certain that none of them would have survived.
Another way this disaster could have been worse is in the environmental impact the water could have done. Witnesses say the water came out of the mine a black with mine contamination all the way to Durango, Colorado and it was feared that it could affect drinking water all the way to Farmington, New Mexico. Fortunately, this was not the case.
The whole scene has been described as one large “toilet flush”. The pressure from this flush was so great that it ripped twenty foot long sections of rock from the wall. We are talking about solid quartz rock, the kind that makes the term “hard rock” needed in our language.
The follow up for the whole story is that the mining company received a huge payout from the insurance company and the mine reopened shortly after, under new management, and all that gold was recovered at a huge profit for the mine.