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A view from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. 
A view from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. 

Some abandoned mines are hard to reach. Take, for example, the Elk Park Mine, located near Molas Pass in the San Juan National Forest of southwestern Colorado. The mine is not accessible by vehicle and requires a 6-mile hike on the Colorado Trail from the Molas Lake parking lot.  

Visiting the mine presented quite a challenge to the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management's Defense-Related Uranium Mines (DRUM) Program team. The DRUM Program team verifies and validates the condition of abandoned uranium mines, such as the Elk Park Mine, which once provided uranium ore for defense-related activities to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, a predecessor agency to DOE. The field teams visit abandoned mine sites to collect location and condition data on features such as adits, shafts, and waste rock piles. They also perform radiological (gamma) walkover surveys and conduct soil and water sampling, if applicable. Following their visits, the teams develop mine-specific reports. 

DRUM field team members say that one of the biggest challenges of the job is the logistics of accessing the sites, many of which are in remote locations. Not only do four team members need to access each mine site, but they each carry a fair amount of work-related gear. Although most sites can be accessed through combined use of a four-wheel-drive truck, a utility terrain vehicle, and a short hike, others prove to be more challenging.  

Initially, visiting the Elk Park Mine presented significant challenges for the DRUM team. Given the terrain, a 6-mile hike is just far enough that it would have been difficult to reach the site, accurately conduct all the verification and validation work, and return to vehicles during daylight hours. 

Fortunately, the DRUM Program maintains working relationships with various land management agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). In the case of the Elk Park Mine, the team was able to learn from the expertise of local USFS staff. USFS provided insights about the area, how best to access the mine, and even visited the mine along with staff from the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety to ensure accuracy. 

The DRUM field team en route to the Elk Park Mine in San Juan National Forest.
The DRUM field team en route to the Elk Park Mine in San Juan National Forest.

As it happens, the Elk Park Mine is only about 1 mile from the Elk Park stop on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, from which the mine takes its name. The train travels along the Animas River between Durango and Silverton, a trip of just over 45 miles each direction. The DRUM team wondered if it could take the train and access the site with a short hike from the train stop. Unfortunately, the train schedule would only allow the team three hours between drop off and pick up at the Elk Park stop, which likely would not be enough time to access the site, complete the work, and return to catch the train back.  

Weighing all options, field team lead Ian Shafer proposed combining the two options by hiking 6 miles from Molas Lake to the site early in the morning, completing the work, then hiking down to the Elk Park train stop to catch the train. This ended up being the most viable option, so Shafer and his team members — David Ruggles, John Westenhoff, and Kiana Ziola — put together a plan to complete the trip in August 2019. They coordinated with additional DRUM team members who picked up vehicles at Molas Lake, then met the team when they disembarked the train in Durango. The plan came together without any problems.  

Although the plan was unconventional, the team, with input and support from the local USFS staff, was able to complete its essential work of assessing potential risks to human health and the environment.  

Learn more about the San Juan National Forest and LM’s DRUM Program.