By Kent Gray
Triplicate staff writer
The abandoned mine shaft that killed a Gasquet man last month is one of many similar potential disaster sites around Del Norte County.
There are 189 identified abandoned mine shafts in the Six Rivers National Forest, and the vast majority of those are in Del Norte County, according to Mary Kay Vandiver, district ranger with the Smith River National Recreation Area.
And although the federal government has amassed a huge fund for sealing abandoned mine shafts, little has actually been spent on the problem.
"The ones that are causing the most concern right now are the ventilation shafts that go straight down," Vandiver said. "These are our highest priority to address."
It was into just such a shaft that Dale Cleveland of Gasquet and his son, Tyson, plunged on Oct. 11 while four-wheeling in the mountains of Del Norte County. Dale Cleveland was killed, but his son was rescued from the bottom of the 70-foot shaft.
The Wall Street Journal reported in June that there is approximately $1.5 billion in federal funds earmarked for filling in abandoned mines. But the newspaper said almost none of that money has filtered down to the local regions because of federal budget woes.
Dale Cleveland's family is outraged that the money is not being spent to seal the old mine shafts.
"I was very angry to learn that money is there and nobody is doing anything with it," said Sheila Cleveland, Dale Cleveland's widow.
Vandiver said the Forest Service has been working to identify dangerous abandoned mines in Del Norte County since 1998. For the first time, money was allocated this year to begin sealing the shafts.
Vandiver said $30,000 has been allocated to Del Norte County forest lands, and her agency is now identifying the top priorities.
"A lot on our map are just slight impressions or shallow ditches. Many of them are full of water," she said. "There are about 75 sites that we've classified as higher priority, with 10 to 15 as highest priority."
The highest priority is the 70-foot-deep Union Zahr mine shaft near Altaville, an old mining community. This hole, about 12 feet in diameter and 70 feet deep, is where Cleveland lost his life.
During an outing with friends on Oct. 11, Cleveland was attempting to turn his 1970 Toyota Land Cruiser around when he drove over a small rise and the vehicle with father and son inside plunged into the unmarked hole.
"There was a little embankment in front of the hole. Our friends were coming up behind us so we kept going up the embankment," said Tyson Cleveland, 19, who was pulled from the shaft by rescue workers.
"We continued up the hill and my dad hit the throttle just near the top and we went right into it," he said.
"We never really liked that area for (four-wheeling) much because of all the holes. Of course, we didn't know about that particular hole. That was the first one I've ever seen that a car could fit in," Tyson Cleveland said.
Vandiver said the Union Zahr shaft was identified earlier as a potential problem and a fence was installed in October 2002.
"We had it fenced off before the accident, but people just come and tear things down in our national forests," Vandiver said. "The fence ended up at the bottom of the shaft."
Cleveland's brother-in-law, Mark Branton, said he believes the type of fence used was part of the problem.
The wire fence was supported only by baskets filled with rocks.
"They need something a little more secure," Branton said. "I realize that anything they put up could have been torn down, but maybe they need to install a pole, or even an orange ribbon or something to alert people."
Vandiver said the fence is back in place and a sign is posted with a special order that people should stay away from the shaft.
"I am just speculating, but judging by the heavy patrolling they (the Forest Service) do in that area, I think they were aware the fence was at the bottom of the shaft and they didn't do anything about it," said Sheila Cleveland.
Vandiver said she has no personal knowledge of the fence being down and nothing was reported to her.
"We do the best we can with limited resources," said Vandiver. "What people should realize is the national recreation area was heavily mined, and people need to be cautious when they proceed in the woods. There are unknown hazards out there.
"The first thing we have to do is identify all the mines we have. There has been so much historic mining activity here in the area, it's just amazing," Vandiver said.
Meanwhile, Cleveland's Land Cruiser remains at the bottom of the shaft.
"They keep telling us there are reasons they can't remove it. I don't know if these are just loophole reasons," said Sheila Cleveland. "I really wanted to have closure with this and have it in my garage."
Vandiver said her agency is moving as quickly as it can in conjunction with the Cleveland family.
"There are certain safety guidelines and protocol I have to follow. It's the Forest Service position that we don't want to endanger anybody's life getting it out. We have to do it properly and as safely as possible," Vandiver said.