Originaly posted in The Union newspaper March 13, 2014
Empire Mine contractor says tourist tunnel was "was ready to go"
By Keri Brenner
Mike Miller took the new that the Empire Mine “adit” tourist tunnel had been scrapped like a dynamite detonation. “This project should not have been killed,” said Miller, a professional miner operator whose team blasted an 850-foot-long shaft, or “adit”, into the abandoned Grass Valley mine between 2004 and 2006. “They are wrong,” he said Wednesday, referring to the Feb. 4 decision by the California Department of Parks and Recreation to stop funding for the project. Safety concerns and the agency’s decision to focus spending on upkeep of existing state parks were the state reasons.
Miller, president of the Sixteen to One Mine in Alleghany, Sierra County, said he was speaking out for the first time in eight years because he was dumbfounded by the state’s decision. Sixteen to one, in business for more than 100 years, is the oldest operating gold mine in North America. “Never in my wildest imagination did I think the thing would not open,” he said of the project, which has so far cost $3.5 million. “I thought it might open in a form I disagreed with, but I never thought it would not open.”
He said he wants the public to know about it and get involved in reversing the decision. “It was ready to go the day we walked out of there in 2006,” Miller added. “That baby was ready to go.”
Vicky Waters, public affairs director for the state, said Wednesday that the state still wants to create an “above-ground tour and have some sort of interpretive re-creation (of mining history) for the public.” Larry Skinner, board president of the volunteer Empire Mine Park Association, said Wednesday he did sign a memorandum of agreement for the group to work with the state on what he calls in his most recent newsletter a “Hardrock Mining Interpretive Center.” The center will likely use some of the equipment that was built to handle visitors to the now-scrapped underground project.
Waters said the state’s decision was based on “two very clear and detailed letters from the California State Fire Marshal” expressing public safety concerns. Also, the parks department’s “fiscal constraints” play a part, she said. “State Parks are focused on maintenance, on looking at the entire system as a whole, making sure that the parks stay open,” she said.
Miller, however, said he found the safety concerns puzzling. He said he was never contacted about any safety problems in the eight years after he finished his work. If there are what he called “mystery” safety concerns, he said he thinks they could be fixed by a team of professional miners. During the job, Miller said, the state orders him to make a series of safety adjustments – including changing all the structural supports from wood to steel and building a train car touring system instead of the walking experience that he preferred. He and his team made all the changes until the project was “oversafe,” he said. “We walked away from that thing very proud of we’d accomplished,” he said. “The people that handled it from that point on just botched it.”
State Parks Director Ret. Maj. Gen. Anthony L. Jackson said in his Feb. 4 letter that the decision to stop funding for the adit was based on two letter from the California State Fire Marshal’s Office. The first letter, dated Jan. 9, 2012, mentions concerns about “Un-conservative” design used on the mine shaft structure from a report from Buehler & Buehler Structural Engineering Consultants. “Due to an advanced corrosion rate of the steel [beams], and the perceived un-conservative nature of the design, the useful life of the steel structure is questionable,” the letter said. “We do not recommend that the adit tunnel be opened for public use until substantial repairs are made.”
In the follow-up letter, date Oct. 17 2012, the State Fire Marshal’s Office recommended a series of 17 improvements that should be made – including replacing the “corroded structural steel supports.” Miller said he and his team of professional miners cold likely make all the fixes and do it quickly, adding: “They [the state] absolutely made their decision without the proper information, proper due diligence.”
Miller said the state could have begun offering tours right away instead of building auxiliary facilities and spending a total of $3.5 million, only to pull the plug eight years later. He wants people to push for the state to reconsider the project. He said his decision to go public after eight years was “not about me” but about the loss of a potential major tourist attraction and all the educational opportunities and revenue such a project would offer. “Can we turn it around? Yes,” he said. “That’s what’s the public can do.”