Making Nevada safer, one mine at a time

Abandoned mines present Nevada students a unique learning opportunity

8/16/2012 | By: Jane Tors  |

Mackay students laughing at an abandoned mine

One of two field crews with Nevada’s Abandoned Mine Lands Program: (l-r) Mackay School students Drew Jones, Orgil Norov, Kelly Elloyan and Kate Schnoor. Photo by John Byrne.

Across the state of Nevada there are an estimated 200,000 abandoned mines, remnants of historic mining operations. Of those, an estimated 50,000 present a safety hazard.

Through a unique, summer internship program, these mine sites also present a learning and employment opportunity for students from the University of Nevada, Reno's Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering in the College of Science.

Although the numbers are daunting, eight University interns have been extending the reach of the Nevada Abandoned Mine Lands Program safety program. The internship program, now in its third year, begins with training and supervised field work. The interns are then separated into two field crews and dispatched to locations across Nevada. Each field crew includes a second-year intern who serves as a field-crew leader.

Once at the site, the interns inventory the mine's features to determine the appropriate course of action to lessen the potential hazard. Their work can include securing the entrance, sealing a mine shaft and posting warning signs. Environmental factors, such as protection of bat habitats, are considered. The students also visit previously secured sites to evaluate whether additional repair is needed.

Mackay students walking to an abandoned mine

Student interns traversed the state this summer, addressing safety of abandoned mine sites. Here, they hike to a work site near Virginia City. Photo by John Byrne.

"Over the summer I have seen countless historical mines," said Kelly Elloyan, a mining engineering major interning with the Abandoned Mines Land Program. "Each new mine site we discover is totally different from the last. Being able to see what obstacles had to be overcome with regards to the design of the mine is quite interesting and very educational."

"We see the internship as part of a continuum that starts with recruitment of students and continues through retention and graduation," said Alan Coyner, University graduate and administrator of the State of Nevada Division of Minerals which oversees the Nevada Abandoned Mine Lands Program.

As a member of the Mackay School's Advisory Board, Coyner knows graduates in the fields of earth sciences and engineering are in demand. With that in mind, the internship program seeks to hire students following their freshmen or sophomore year to provide an early industry-related work experience, plus a source of summer income.

"This internship has definitely been challenging. Hiking and hauling equipment up and down extremely steep terrain gets really tiring," said Elloyan, who is in his sophomore year at the University. "But, there is no way that can outweigh being outside and exploring Nevada all summer long, and getting paid for it.

"It also gives you an idea of what might be expected of us when we get out into the industry whether it be dealing with water or property rights."

The program has taken Elloyan and his fellow interns to towns across Northern Nevada, where the mining industry is thriving.

"It really is unbelievable how busy these mining towns are," Elloyan said. "We were hard-pressed to find an empty hotel room or camp site in most of them. Everybody from the actual mine employees to the grocery store and gas station owner are scrambling because they are so busy. Mining really has revived these small towns, and I would be really proud to work for any mining company that played a role in that."

While the student interns spend most of their time working out in the field, they also rotate through the Nevada Division of Minerals office, where they assist with data and records. In addition to addressing mine-site hazards, the Abandoned Mine Lands Program also includes a public education component, and this summer the students were involved with K-12 outreach sponsored by the Nevada Mining Association.

Russ Fields, director of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, praised the Division of Minerals' program: "I can't think of a more positive program for the state of Nevada, the University and the Mackay School students. The students receive training and hands-on experience in the area of working in the field with maps, surveying equipment and GPS technology that give them excellent experience for their future careers. Hundreds of abandoned old mining sites around the state have been identified, mapped and secured as a result of this unique program. We are very fortunate to have the Division of Minerals leading the effort to secure these sites and employ these students."

Last spring, additional Mackay School students experienced the Abandoned Mine Lands Program when state mining officials partnered with the Mackay Rockhounds, a student club, to secure and clean the Burris Mine site. The formerly active mine is on land owned by the Mackay School.

The Nevada Abandoned Mine Lands Program is funded by fees paid by the mining industry and grants from the Bureau of Land Management. "It is basically a dream job for me, and I know a lot of the other interns feel the same," Elloyan said.

Mackay students posing by an abandoned mine

Another mine site is made safer by University interns with Nevada's Abandoned Mine Lands Program: (l-r) Orgil Norov, Drew Jones, Kate Schnoor and Kelly Elloyan. Photo by John Byrne.


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