Utah’s Mining History
In Utah, there are 174 mining districts illustrating the rich mining history in the state: silver, copper, coal, and uranium have all been unearthed from Utah’s lands. The transcontinental railroad and development of ore-extracting technologies fueled the spread of silver and other mining in Utah and Salt Lake City became the center of mining in the west. Before 1900, more than half of Utah’s mineral production was silver, which accounted for 20% of the silver production in the United States. However Utah is known more for its copper mines than for silver or gold. In 1910, Utah produced 11% of the US copper and 30% by 1940.
Since the turn of the 20th century, coal has also been an important part of Utah’s mining history. Coal powered the locomotives of the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad that moved coal from the coal fields of Utah to Salt Lake City where it was used in coking ovens and for smelting to make steel. Early coal mining in Utah encouraged the first union activities in an effort to protect the workers from dangerous working conditions, high company-town prices, and no representation. In 1900, 200 men and boys were killed in an explosion at the Winter Quarters coal mine in central Utah and 1924 another explosion rocked the Castle Gate Mine killing 171 men and boys. However, it was not until 1933 that coal companies in Utah finally admitted organizers from the United Mine Works of America and the worker unions in Utah were formed.
Uranium mining, which is still occurring, accounts for several mining booms in Utah’s history. The first boom was triggered in the early 1900’s, when Madame Marie Curie isolated a pure metal from uranium salts she collected from the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Utah. This radioactive metal was called radium, “the miracle element.” A waste product of radium mining known as vanadium, often discarded in the waste rock, was found to add strength, lightness, and elasticity to the steel used in building airplanes, warships, and industrial machinery and this new mineral created the second boom in the area.
The third boom came in 1947, when the federal government, under the Atomic Energy Commission and driven by the cold war, sent out a call to prospectors to begin a full scale uranium industry in Utah. Today the fourth boom is occurring, with uranium prices increasing more than fivefold from 1990 prices.
Current Abandoned Mine Conditions in Utah
Utah’s rich mining legacy has left in its wake thousands of open abandoned mine shafts and adits, dilapidated structures such as headframes and buildings, and eroding waste dumps (also known as mine dumps). These waste dumps often contain elevated levels of heavy metals, such as cadmium, arsenic, lead, zinc, and others minerals.
The number of abandoned mines on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Utah could number between 8,000 and 11,000 but no complete inventory of BLM lands in Utah has been conducted. Unfortunately, abandoned mine lands (AML) in what were once remote areas now pose a real physical safety threat because of Utah’s phenomenal population growth, the desire for country living, and quest for recreational opportunities.
In addition to the physical safety issues, about 5-10% of these abandoned mine sites may have a water quality problem ranging from heavy metal contamination to uncontrolled erosion. These issues at AML sites compound the reclamation solutions requiring creative collaboration, increased funding levels, development of new techniques, and the implementation of the Best Management Practices (BMP).