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Soudan Mine fire likely caused by sparks from maintenance work

The fire that began March 17 in the mine shaft at Soudan Underground Mine State Park near Tower, was "most probably caused by sparks produced by maintenance work in the shaft," according to a report issued today by the State Fire Marshal Division...

The fire that began March 17 in the mine shaft at Soudan Underground Mine State Park near Tower, was "most probably caused by sparks produced by maintenance work in the shaft," according to a report issued today by the State Fire Marshal Division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

The maintenance work involved replacing degraded steel sheeting in the lowest 600 feet of the mine shaft by park staff, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The fire is considered accidental at this time.

The fire damage was confined to the mine shaft, and there was no apparent fire damage in the physics laboratory, according to the report. "Fire damage included charred wood timbers, melted PVC pipe and melted electrical wiring," the report said. "Sparks were produced by cutting and grinding tools and had apparently started smoldering on small pieces of wood located between the metal and the rock face of the shaft."

"The mine was unoccupied at the time of the fire, so no one was injured, and we continue to focus on how grateful we are for that," said park manager Jim Essig. "As we move forward on repairs and consider future public use of the underground mine, the safety of visitors remains our top priority."

Essig said he and park staff appreciate the support they have received from the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, the University of Minnesota, Fermilab, Breitung Township and City of Tower firefighters, and numerous other government agencies and mines, including Homestake Mine in Lead, S. D.; Task Force 1, a search and rescue team based in the Twin Cities area; and the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration.

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Progress continues on assessing and repairing damage to the mine. Last week, DNR staff and an outside electrical contractor installed a new power cable, and on Saturday, April 16, full electrical power was restored throughout the mine.

This coming week, outside experts will visit the mine to prepare estimates for repair and clean-up of the underground facilities, including remnants of the foam and the debris brought in during the firefighting phase.

The above-ground facilities at the park have reopened, but the park is unlikely to be able to offer underground tours this season. Public tours of the historic iron-ore mine and the University of Minnesota's physics laboratory take place on the 27th level of the mine, nearly a half mile below ground. More than 30,000 people take those tours annually. Until clean-up, repairs, and thorough safety inspections are completed, the DNR is unable to speculate on future underground tours.

"Although the underground tours are currently unavailable, there is still a lot to see and do above ground," Essig said. He said the park plans to offer guided tours of the historic buildings above ground this summer. Like the underground tours, the above-ground tours will focus on the contributions of mining to the history and culture of Minnesota's iron range. Tour information will be posted on the DNR website, mndnr.gov as soon as it is available.

Other above-ground opportunities for visitors include taking a self-guided audio tour of the park's historic buildings (the audio and brochure files can be downloaded at mndnr.gov), geocaching (the park has free GPS units available for check-out), and hiking the trails at Soudan Underground Mine State Park and the adjacent Lake Vermilion State Park.

A virtual tour of the underground mine is available at mndnr.gov.

More information about Lake Vermilon State Park is available at www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/lake_vermilion/index.html .

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