RAWLINS, Wyo. — When Robert and Karen Umberger looked outside their Elmo home on a cool spring morning in 2010, there was something funny about the 6-by-8-foot hole in their front yard. To wit, there wasn’t a 6-by-8-foot hole in their front yard the morning prior.
“There was a little snow bank over that spot that just vanished, and there was this hole,” Robert Umberger said. “I got a flashlight and looked down in it. I ended up roping it off with some flagging material. If someone fell in there, it would be — well, it was 10, 12 feet deep.”
As winter melted into spring in April 2010, the Umbergers discovered their property sits atop the Elmo Peacock Mine.
“One of the guys that came to fix it, he kind of thought it was a ventilation shaft for the coal mine,” Umberger said. “It was lined on four sides with timbers, railroad ties, and he was pretty sure water from my little add-on here directed runoff that rotted the top timbers, and it just fell in on itself.”
The price tag: $4,679 for concrete and road base-like filler, plus topsoil.
The benefactor: Abandoned Mine Land division, a branch of Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality.
“We’ve had numerous responses around Hanna and Elmo, probably three or four during the last 10 years,” said Bill Locke, program manager for DEQ’s Abandoned Mine Land division. “A couple of them have been by the new county road, and then those folks’ house.”
The state has been working on safety and environmental projects related to abandoned mines in the Hanna Basin for decades, although this 2010 incident was on the cusp of renewed activities. During the past two years, the Abandoned Mine Land division has reclaimed areas east of Hanna, near Elmo in an effort to remove hazards and improve water quality.
Locke stressed the need for immediate response to subsidence issues threatening buildings or gas mains. That speed, he said, is a big part of why a typical work order, including the initial Umberger estimate, comes in around $5,800.
The state pays for similar safety and environmental projects because, as the division’s name suggests, they involve defunct mines.
“Most of them were in operation before 1977, but it varies depending on land type,” said George Boulter, a DEQ division project manager. “It has to do with when you were required to have permits and bonding. Our division reclaims abandoned mines for which there’s no reasonable or responsible party.”
Multiple Hanna Basin sites pass that litmus test, Boulter said, noting an additional consideration.
“Virtually the entire town of Hanna is undermined by old underground mines,” Boulter said. “Hopefully the issue of subsidence is going to continually be addressed.”
What happened to the Umbergers, it seems, could happen anywhere in town.
Imagine a soup bowl.
Place that soup bowl in a sandbox and fill it until you can barely see a ceramic ring sticking out of the sand.
“That bowl is a coal seam, and that exposed circle is where the coal seam starts,” said Jack Smith, another DEQ division project manager. “Hanna is, essentially, sitting in the middle of the bowl on top of the sand.”
Now imagine it’s the late 19th century and you’re mining coal for the nearby Union Pacific Railroad.
“They had mines going on the north and south side of that soup bowl, and they’d follow that seam down a fairly steep incline until they were at the bottom, around 600 feet underground,” Smith said. “Then they’d start coming up again, only, in all of this, there’s some faulting, like someone broke the soup bowl, and it’s sticking up in parts.”
And so Hanna was mined seam by seam through the early 20th century until around World War II.
“A lot of the subsidence that’s going to happen has probably already happened,” Smith said. “Still there’ll always be places where holes show up, particularly where that bowl’s rim is at, because the tunnels are shallower there.”
And it’s important to address those holes as soon as they appear.
You have free articles remaining.
“When a hole comes up, that’s when it’s the most dangerous, because all of the walls are undercut,” Smith said. “It’s kind of like a bell-shape that, when it breaks the surface, may only be a few feet in diameter, but as it gets older . ultimately leaves you with a vertical hole.”
The Abandoned Mine Land division has been focusing on coal-related projects as of late, which is part of why work in Hanna has picked up in recent years.
“Our grant for this last year was $29 million or $30 million for all different types of mine reclamation,” Boulter said. “We’ve been tasked with completing our inventory of coal before we switch back to our non-coal activities, but right now, all the coal-related stuff is under contract.”
During the last two decades, DEQ’s Abandoned Mine Land division has done a lot more in the Hanna Basin than just responding to acute crises.
The state’s Abandoned Mine Land website, deq.state.wy.us/aml, includes a list of 36 projects, at least four of which involve sites around Hanna.
“In the last 14 months, we’ve really started moving on the water issues there,” said Smith, who finished Hanna No. 3 mine reclamation in May. “My part’s done, but it’s upstream of Big Ditch, and that’s the main drainage channel.”
The Hanna Basin probably isn’t going to collapse, en masse, but the area does have lingering water issues trickling from its mining history.
“The surface water flows into the old underground workings, and it cause drainage issues and raises the groundwater table,” said Boulter, who’s working on Big Ditch, Sandpipe Draw, Rosebud Ditch and Carbon and Albany County Coal, at large. “And, in Hanna’s case, that water isn’t very good. If you look around, there are several areas you might call salt pans.”
Boulter and Smith said water that’s run through former mines likely contains sodium and magnesium sulfates, that is, salts.
“If you go way back in time, when that area was a big swamp, you have water coming in depositing sediment on top of the organics that becomes your coal bed,” Smith said. “That water brings in other constituents, such as dissolved salts, and a lot of times, your shales have salts that, once you break that rock up, rubbles up to surface.”
They agreed metals and metalloids such as arsenic aren’t a concern in Hanna’s mine-tempered water, although stagnate pools where mosquitoes breed are an ongoing issue.
Water from Big Ditch — which is likely a railroad rerouting of smaller channels into a parallel path to the tracks to avoid costly, labor-intensive bridge construction — eventually flows into the Seminoe Reservoir.
“We can’t totally prevent all of the water flowing into the underground workings,” Boulter said, “but the goal is to greatly minimize that and, again, to improve water quality.”
Ask Hanna Mayor Tony Poulos, who grew up in the area, about abandoned mines, and he’ll likely voice concerns from decades past.
“I know they’ve caused some subsidence, cracked foundations and cracked walls about 25 years ago, but that’s also when there was a lot of surface mining and blasting near town, so I’m not sure what caused what,” Poulos said. “It’s been more a problem in the outlaying areas, where it’s caused some major holes.”
After 50-plus years in Hanna, he’s not too concerned, but he’s happy to see the state doing more mine reclamation.
“I haven’t seen too may problems in town, but I’ve appreciated the work that’s been done to the east,” Poulos said. “There were some big water table issues out where the Rec(reation) Center is when I was younger — those are gone, and that’s for sure.”
In the family
Karen Umberger’s husband worked for Arch Coal the first time they lived in the area in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Incidentally, DEQ officials said some of their areas include abandoned Arch mines that, because of technical reasons, qualified for the program.)
She moved with her husband to Nevada, where he mined coal.
They returned to the area in 1997 and have seen much of the mine-related reclamation during the past decade and a half.
In short, the Umbergers are familiar with mining’s long-term affects on the Hanna Basin and other areas, but that doesn’t mean waking up to a hole in the front yard is any less shocking.
“It was right there at the end of the sidewalk, I mean just right there,” Karen Umberger said. “I’m laughing, but it wasn’t really that funny. I guess if it had been big enough, we could’ve thrown everything we had in there and called it done.”