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Answers about abandoned mines

Public education, involvement needed

A fallen fence with a danger sign near the city of Negaunee is shown. Liability for injuries in caving grounds ultimately fall to property owners. People are asked to alert the local municipality or the county mine inspector if issues with fences or other barricades to mine caving grounds are observed. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final story in a four-part series about former mine properties, legislation surrounding their safety and the responsibilities of the county mine inspectors and property owners in Michigan.

MARQUETTE — Noted author Robert Frost once wrote: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

This is especially true when referencing former mine properties that have been deemed unsafe.

The Marquette County mine inspector inspects 98 abandoned mines annually, consisting of hundreds of areas of subsidence, mine shafts and pits, along with sand and gravel pits. He is also responsible for inspecting the active Eagle Mine, Humboldt Mill and Tilden Mine in addition to the indefinitely idled Empire Mine every 60 days, according to state statute.

Mining companies have extracted minerals from land across the county for 170 years, and the Tilden Mine will continue to do so for decades, according to Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co. projections.

Hundreds of acres of former mining property in Negaunee and Ishpeming was purchased from CCI by the respective municipalities in 2003. Many acres of these former caving grounds have been deemed safe by the Marquette County mine inspector. Other parcels that have seen mining activity in the past have been sold to private developers, some of which have had houses built on them.

Liability for problems that arise on such properties fall to the owner of the surface rights and/or the individual or entity that owns the mineral rights.

“Mineral rights are a type of real property and can be owned in conjunction with, or separately from, the surface rights,” according to Mark Sweatman, the director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Minerals Management.

According to a 2018 DNR press release, an owner can separate the mineral rights from his or her land by selling or otherwise transferring the land but retaining the mineral rights, conveying the mineral rights and retaining the land; or selling or transferring the land to one person and the mineral rights to another.

Communication along the chain of ownership does not necessarily indicate whether the property could be considered mine caving grounds.

Marquette attorney Richard Graybill, who is a member of the Real Property Law Section of the Michigan Bar Association, said there is no statutory obligation for a seller to indicate whether a parcel had ever seen mining activity.

“In real estate law, the seller has the obligation to notify the buyer of any known defect,” Graybill said in a recent phone interview. “Whether the former mining operation would be considered a known defect is very fact specific. The only statute that is involved is one that requires fencing of previous mining operation. And that is up to the mining inspectors to determine.”

He went on to say that some areas that used to be considered caving grounds are now “perfectly safe.”

“There were mining activities more than 100 years ago, so there is the potential that anyplace could be former caving grounds,” Graybill said.

County mine inspector John Carlson said in a recent interview that he is not made aware when a former caving ground that he is responsible for inspecting is up for sale or has been sold. He said in order to find a property or mineral rights owner for a parcel that he regularly inspects, he uses a plat book and visits the Marquette County Register of Deeds to determine current surface owners.

Carlson said, in his view, if there has been mining activity on a parcel that fact should be noted in any real estate transaction.

“They should tell people. If that property had a mine on it, make sure to tell the people that are buying it,” Carlson said. “And I say that because as the surface right owner, if someone gets in there and drowns or gets killed because a fence was down, you are just as responsible. The mineral right owner is responsible for the mine. People should not be able to sell it without letting the buyer know.”

According to its 2020 budget, Marquette County allocates $51,325 for the county mine inspector each year.

That annual cost is comprised of $49,375 in personnel services such as the mine inspector’s salary, retirement, health and life insurance. The remaining $1,950 is allocated to other services and charges, the document states.

Marquette County administrator Scott Erbisch said from the county’s perspective the main objective of the mine inspector is safety, and if necessary, the county budget would be amended to address a land owner that is in violation at an abandoned mine site.

“I couldn’t underscore this more, first and foremost is the safety of the community itself, specifically when it comes to abandoned mine locations,” Erbisch said. “I mean there’s hundreds of them within Marquette County, and obviously some of them are much higher and greater risk than others.”

Some concerns about abandoned mines, mine inspectors and active mines and former mine properties could be addressed through the Michigan Mining Future Committee, state Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, said in a phone interview.

“I will say there is a larger discussion going on (with) taxation. In other words, what does the state do with the taxes it receives from mining? Some of it goes to locals, but in terms of the state, right now, a lot of this money goes to the general fund.”

She said there is talk amongst the committee about using some of the tax revenue from active mines to fund safety and education efforts as well as GPS documentation of abandoned mines.

“There is a much bigger conversation,” Cambensy said. “The committee is looking at Minnesota and they have a much more robust way to fund things that involve mining. In the next, probably year, you are going to see a lot of stuff come out regarding recommendations from them or changes. Minnesota has five iron mines versus our one that’s active and one that’s idle. They do have more taxation coming in from it. They can fund a lot of this stuff. But now is the time to have the conversation about what do we need (in Michigan) and how do we go about paying for it.”

One of the challenges Michigan faces as opposed to Minnesota is the prevalence of underground mining here for more than a century.

“Just the way that our geological formation of ore is, versus Minnesota. They mine primarily on the surface so they have been able to put a lot more trails on their abandoned mine sites simply because there is no fear of a cave-in,” Cambensy said. “Where in Michigan, up until the 1960s and early 70s when they shut down the Mather B, we were still mining underground. So we have a lot more challenges that way and you know certainly there is more urgency to document where these are and you know, have a mine inspector be able to keep them safe.”

She said that while the installation of some recreational trails has been a “loose process” to this point, the property owner has the final say and the final liability for land that the public uses.

“When you have the trail builders, they think, ‘This is just maybe where the trail has always been so it’s just the most logical place to put the trail, but at the same time it goes back to the liability,” Cambensy said. “Whether it’s a city of Negaunee, city of Ishpeming, county land, state land or private land, it is the responsibility of the property owner to ultimately allow that use or give notice that they shouldn’t be there.”

For their part, the city of Negaunee is focused on education as well as safety, with signage and fencing becoming a top priority in recent weeks.

“As it pertains to the mine concerns off of the city property, we have no say in that,” Negaunee city Manager Nate Heffron said. “That is purely the mine inspector. “We have taken action already. We have closed off one mine area, put up some new fencing, put up some signs at Jackson Pit No. 1 and we will be putting up some additional signs everywhere in the entrances of all of our parks in conspicuous locations. (The signs will say) that this park is on caving grounds, that there are mine shafts around here and there (are) also surface mines. Please stay on the approved trails and approved park areas — anywhere else is at your own risk. That’s not going to absolve us of any liability, but it at least tells people that this is the circumstance and to please stay in these areas.”

Cambensy noted that the public can be an integral part of keeping people safe and out of dangerous caving grounds.

“A mine inspector would really rely on the community to say ‘Hey, I was on this trail and I saw a fence down, you might want to check it out,'” Cambensy said.

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