About 17,000 such mines remain open across the state.
State officials have closed 56 mines in Utah’s historic Tintic Mining District, including the shaft near Eureka where the bodies of murdered teenagers Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson and Riley Powell were recovered in 2018.
For years, Otteson and Powell’s family have been urging the state to seal these mines because, as Powell’s father Bill said, “they just sit there and wait for someone to fall in or be put in.”
According to Steve Fluke, manager of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining’s abandoned mine rehabilitation program, the state planned to seal the mine where Otteson and Powell were found before they died. But the process took years, in part because this mine, Tintic Standard #2, and others were located on private property, albeit “easily accessible” and near popular off-road vehicle trails, Fluke said in a statement.
Environmental and cultural surveys must also be completed before work can begin, Fluke said. Once given the green light, teams can backfill mines to seal them, or add polyurethane foam, grilles, gates, and walls.
“Protecting these mines ensures future risks are minimized or eliminated,” Fluke said in the statement, “thereby improving public safety.”
Crews found Otteson, 17, and Powell, 18, on March 28, 2018 on a ledge approximately 100 feet below the Tintic Standard No. 2 mine. A jury found Jerrod Baum in 2022 on all charges against him relating to the guilty in the 2017 teenage murders. Prosecutors at the time said Baum killed the couple after learning that his then-girlfriend, whom he banned from having male friends, had been hanging out with Otteson and Powell.
Court records state that Baum abducted the teens and took them to the Juab County mine, where he beat and stabbed Powell and cut Otteson’s throat before dumping their bodies down the mine shaft.
Amanda Davis, Otteson’s aunt, said the teens’ families are grateful the mine is finally covered. The family have erected a memorial near the mine and on visits over the past six years Davis said they saw the ground around the shaft eroding, making an existing “safety risk” even more uncertain.
The memorial is still accessible just below the site, and Davis said she hopes people will continue to visit.
“[Crews] “They showed the utmost respect during the process of covering the mine,” the families said in a post on the youth memorial’s Facebook page, “and they respected the children and the memorial throughout the duration of the project.”
According to a 1979 US Geological Survey report, the Tintic Mining District in Utah’s western desert was once one of the state’s most important mining regions for silver, gold and other base metal ores such as copper and zinc. At the beginning of the 20th century the area was home to one of the most productive silver mines in the world.
The district grew during the boom, its landscapes increasingly dotted with mines and the towns that sprung up to support the miners, but it also stagnated during the downturn. According to the Department of Oil, Gas and Mines, mines that were no longer considered productive were abandoned. The workers left behind equipment, heaps of waste rock, and deep, gaping holes in the ground.
Legislatures passed the Utah Mined Land Reclamation Act in 1975, which made mine abandonment illegal. The Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program, launched in 1983, has helped seal about 7,000 mines. An estimated 17,000 others remain open across the state.
Fluke said its teams would continue to close mines in the Tintic Mining District in the next phase of their project, which will target about 50 more open mines. Teams are conducting similar work across the state, including sealing old uranium mines near Moab.
Crews don’t check mines for bodies before beginning work, although Fluke said he’s been asked that question a lot, especially since the 2009 disappearance of Susan Powell. He said this type of recovery work was too “time-consuming and difficult,” but would assist law enforcement with such work if requested.