The state of Michigan is home to Motown, a world-class baseball team, America’s largest ski jump – and thousands of extremely dangerous abandoned mine shafts. As the mining industry began leaving Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the mid-twentieth century, few steps were taken to ensure the safety of existing structures. Today, there are over 700 abandoned mines in the state, and more than 2000 abandoned mine shafts, the majority of which are not marked or properly documented. Mine shafts are often partially filled in by leaves and debris, making them nearly impossible to identify quickly while walking in the woods. In the last five-year period for which there is data (2009-2013), there were 74 deaths nationwide related to abandoned mines. The culture of the Upper Peninsula places great importance on the outdoors, making the community particularly vulnerable to these hazards.
Mining companies have begun to return to the Upper Peninsula, so it’s important to act now to prevent future abandonment of mines as well as to mark dangerous areas caused by already-abandoned mines. As the Upper Peninsula’s new mining boom begins, mining companies should pay a tax to fund efforts to identify and mark shafts to make Michigan’s outdoors a safe place for its citizens and tourists to hunt, camp, and live. To avoid the costs of training new workers to do this, the revenue could go to fund the Mining and Geological Engineering program at Michigan Tech University’s now-defunct Abandoned Mines Inventory, which had the same goals of locating and marking abandoned mine shafts. The program ran out of funding in 1999 and effectively ended.
Such a tax will likely discourage new mines from opening in the Upper Peninsula, which is good for the environment – mines contaminate water and contribute to deforestation, among other things. The mining industry should be held accountable for its impacts on the safety of Michigan’s outdoors, including its role in the creation of both environmental and safety hazards. What’s more, several mines have been at the center of controversy given their proximity to Menominee Nation burial sites and other cultural resources. Imposing a tax could discourage further conflicts with Native American nations in the region.
Most work being done today involves providing education to residents of areas with a history of mining, though it is extremely difficult to identify abandoned shafts because they can be filled in with debris, or simply open as sinkholes with no warning. Education is not enough to prevent new tragedies, so it is crucial to continue Michigan Tech University’s efforts to locate abandoned shafts. There is already the necessary institutional framework in place through Michigan Tech University’s Abandoned Mines Inventory. Members of indigenous communities, hunters, hikers, campers, and visitors should be able to utilize Michigan’s outdoors safely.