Trip leader: Laura Rosales Lagarde
Attending: David, James, Christina, Tanja, Evan, John, Katrina, Steve, and Stacy
Report written by David Hunter, October 2018
Special thanks to Ing. Villasuso for all his effort in making this tour possible.
This trip may be the pinnacle of the NMT Caving Club activities. Like many cavers, we all wanted to go to The Cave of the Crystals, a cave in Mexico noted for giant crystals. Being inside a active mine, you had to get permission (and a guide) to enter, which is no easy task. Unlike many cavers, we had a native Mexican geology grad student among the members. During a meeting, Katrina said "I haven't had any luck talking to them. Laura, you speak Spanish, you try." And Laura succeeded in getting us a tour of the cave and associated mine...
The Naica Mine, is located by the town of Naica in the Chihuahua region of Mexico. This lead, zinc, and sliver mine digs into mineralization associated with intrusive igneous rock under the mountain to the west of town. While the rock solidified long ago, it is still rather warm. The natural temperature of the mine is about 58° C (136 ° F), so cooling systems are essential to mine operation.
As the mine is reported to have operated at over 700 meters below the water table, 60,000 liters per minute of water is pumped out to keep the mine operating. I assume a substantial amount of the surrounding greenery was due to this water.
This map of the mine gives an idea how extensive the mine was, and a geologic plan can be found online.
There were several entries to the mine. The San Francisco ramp provides vehicle access via a giant spiral-shaped tunnel.
The drive down the tunnel was quite long, and the constant turning makes the ride a little disconcerting.
Our tour included the lower parts of the mine. While I don't recall the exact depth, I estimate around 800m (2600ft) based on mindat.org. They list the 2013 working depth as 750m below the 110m water table, so about 800m is a reasonable estimate of the depth of our 2008 visit.
Cameras often fog up in this place. James put a hand warmer in the case with his camera at the start of the trip, preventing it from fogging up. The fog did clear from my camera, but it took awhile.
We went pretty close to what was, at the time, the bottom of the mine. At a few thousand feet underground, this may be the deepest puddle that I have ever been in.
While the cooling and ventilation systems brought the temperature down to survivable levels, the mine is very hot. They had refrigerated trailers for the workers to cool down in, and the workers happily let the visiting cavers use them as well. After chilling out for a bit, we went up to The Cave of the Crystals.
The Cave of the Crystals, at a depth of 300m, is substantially higher than the dig face. The area was secured, though the natural temperature inside the cave provides more protection than anything else.
They had a small viewing room at the entry. It also served as an environmental seal between the ventilated mine and naturally hot cave.
Christina, looking at the crystals. Too bad Eshani wasn't around; at a few sizes smaller than Christina, she would have provided an even greater contrast...
A movie crew had been there shortly before our visit. They broke a few of the windows, and apparently did some other damage. As a result, were not able to visit the other caves in the mine. On the bright side, the missing window let us take pictures without the scratched-up acrylic getting in the way.
Given the long history of the mine, there are many abandoned upper shafts. They are fenced and gated off. And the NMT Caving Club does not enter abandoned mines.
From the ridge above the town, we could see more mine workings. The lift seen here was running most of the time.
The air exhaust vents left a dark plume on the ground, presumably from all of the dust stirred up inside the mine.
This story, however, does not have a happy ending. The mine was shut down in 2015 due to flooding. As reported by Industrias Peñoles (page 69, "Las operaciones de esta unidad minera fueron suspendidas por tiempo indefinido a partir de octubre 2015 por causa de fuerza mayor, debido a que el 1° de enero del mismo año, un flujo extraordinario provocó la inundación parcial significativa de la mina." I translate this as "The operations of this mine were indefinitely suspended in October 2015 due to force majeure. On January 1st 2015, an extraordinary water flow caused substantial flooding in the mine." Elsewhere in the report, they indicate that efforts to drain the mine failed. What little I have found on the event is below.
Most sources covering the flood are Spanish-language Mexican news websites, while the English-language sources are minimal. Wikipedia cites Reuters, repeating the same note about flooding as above. El Diario claims an initial flooding of the lower 100m of the mine, and that some workers may have been trapped. I have not found any further news regarding trapped, injured, or killed workers in later articles. I suspect there weren't any, especially since the flood occurred on New Years, when I assume the workers were off celebrating Año Nuevo. However, I am not sure that there weren't any casualties.
It is also unclear if The Cave of the Crystals has flooded, but what I can find suggests it didn't. The BBC (and Wikipedia, via the BBC), in Feb. 2017, cites Dr. Penelope Boston in saying that the cave flooded due to the closure of the mine. Later reports indicate an eventual flood depth of 300m to 600m, and state that The Cave of the Crystals was not flooded. According to mindat, the cave was 550m above the bottom of the mine, putting it at the upper edge of possible flooding. While the cave was originally below the water table, a substantial water depletion cone should surround the mine due to decades of water removal. And, given how dry the area is, this cone may not refill quickly. Lacking reliable water monitoring data, I doubt that the cave reflooded, but can not be sure. Nor can I say what the effects of such a flood would be. Presumably crystal growth would resume. However, the unique nature of the crystals was due to an environment that supported crystal growth but prevented the nucleation of new crystals. Human activity may have nucleated numerous new crystals, which will cause new growth patterns when the cave floods.
In Feb 2017, Outlet Minero reported a group of scientists seeking entry before the cave floods. Assuming that the cooling and ventilation have been shut off, the temperature and humidity would make this a formidable undertaking. Cooling comparable to the ice suits used in exploring the cave would be required. While vehicle access to the cave may be possible, most engines would overheat at that temperature. Even the vehicle makes it, I wouldn't bet on the A/C overcoming that temperature difference. And if your cooling failed, you wouldn't be able to walk out of the mine before being overcome by the heat and killed.
When the director of the mine was asked about opening The Cave of the Crystals for tourism, he said that the the cost of cooling the area would be too high. He also felt that keeping the cave from reflooding would be costly, but did not comment as to when the water would reach the cave. However, there was consideration of pumping water out of the mine for irrigation, which would help prevent the cave from reflooding.
As many of the readers of this site do not speak Spanish, I have translated one article on how the flood impacted the people of Naica. While my Spanish isn't good, I think I can beat online translators, but there may be errors in this translation. If there is sufficient interest, I will see about translating another article on Naica.
Evangelina Fuentes Sáenz | Miércoles 12 Julio 2017 | 12:08 hrs
Saucillo. - Ayer, en la cotidianidad diaria, Naica vivió el día del minero. Una fecha que en años anteriores era celebrada por la Sección 30 del Sindicato de Mineros y la propia empresa. Hoy, es distinto luego del cierre de la mina a causa de la inundación de varios niveles del centro de trabajo que le daba vida a la comunidad. Hoy el festejo lo organiza la autoridad Seccional.
Saucillo. - Yesterday, as part of their daily life, Naica noted Miner's Day. In the past this day was celebrated by Section 30 of the Miner's Union. But, today, it is different because of the flooding of various levels of the mine that gave life to the community. The celebration is now being organized by the Sistema del Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF).
Todo está listo para que este 14 de julio comience el programa de actividades que se ha organizado por el Comité Pro Fiestas de Naica que encabeza Sarita Chavira de Rea, presidenta del DIF en este Seccional. Ella, con un grupo de voluntarios tiene dispuesto un calendario de festejos que culminarán el domingo 16.
Everything is ready for the start of festivities on July 14th, which were organized by the Committee for Celebrations in Naica. The head of the committee, DIFF section president Sarita Chavira de Rea, and a group of volunteers, has organized a calendar of activities that will culminate on Sunday the 16th.
Por segundo año consecutivo es el Seccional que se hace cargo de organizar el tradicional festejo. “No queremos que se pierda la costumbre de celebrar el día del minero, que se conmemora cada 11 de julio”, dijo Sarita.
For the second consecutive year the DIF has had the job of organizing the traditional celibration. “We don't want to loose the costume of celebrating Miner's Day, that is observed every July 11th,” said Sarita.
“La gente de Naica no perdemos la esperanza ni la fe de que vendrán mejores tiempos para el pueblo. Ahora hay dificultades por la desintegración familiar, la falta de empleo, los niños que se quedan solos porque su papá se fue a otra unidad (mina) y su mamá trabaja en una maquiladora; pero esperamos que pronto venga el proyecto del Nuevo Naica del que se hacen trabajos de exploración”, explicó la primera dama de la comunidad.
The people of Naica have lost neither hope nor faith that there will be better times for the town. Today there are problems with family desintegration, unemployemnt, and children that are alone because their father works at another mine and their mother works in a textile factory. But we hope that soon there will be a new Naica Project that will employ miners,” said the first lady of the community.
En torno a los festejos, aprovechó la entrevistada para invitar a toda la región centro-sur del estado a visitar Naica, ya que se ha preparado un gran programa de celebraciones.
For the festivities, all of the south-central region will be invited to visit Naica, which has planned a great celebration.
El 14 de julio se inauguran las fiestas y se hace la elección de la reina, entre cuatro jovencitas que buscan convertirse en soberana: Brisa Márquez, Zayra Maldonado, Paola González y Berenice Germes. La ganadora será coronada en el baile de ese viernes en las canchas del lugar.
On the 14th of July the festivities will start with the election of the queen, chosen from 4 young ladies that seek to become the ruler: Brisa Márquez, Zayra Maldonado, Paola González y Berenice Germes. The winner will be crowned in the dance this Friday, at the plaza.
Para el 15 de julio se tiene previsto un desfile de carros alegóricos, la participación de la nueva reina, ex reinas y varios grupos que se han sumado a esta actividad que recorrerá las calles del mineral, al terminar se llevará a cabo el baile con los Nuevos Montañeses.
On July 15th, there will be a parade with floats, the new queen, former queens, and various other groups. The parade will travel the mining town's streets, finishing in a dance with the Nuevos Montañeses (a Mexican band).
Para el 16, último día de fiesta, se arrancará a las 9 de la mañana con una cabalgata, a las 6:30 de la tarde se tendrá la intervención cultural de sopranos de Saucillo, para luego dar cabida a la callejoneada y tambora, para cerrar con un baile más.
The 16th, the last day of the celebration, will start with a horse ride at 9 in the morning. At 6:30 in the evening there will be a concert hosted by the Sopranos de Saucillo, with a callejneada and tambora, to finish with one last dance. [A callejoneada is similar to a musical parade, and a tambora is a particular type of band.
Habrá mucha fiesta, mucha alegría, comentó Sarita Chavira, quien se mostró contenta con el trabajo que ha hecho su equipo del Comité Proferia de Naica, ya que para cubrir varios gastos se hicieron actividades previas para recaudar fondos como fue un evento de pelea de gallos, por lo que se espera que la comunidad y la gente que venga de fuera disfrute en grande estos festejos.
There will be a large and very happy fiesta, said Sarita Chavira, who is pleased with the work that the festival Committee of Naica has done. To cover expenses, they have had various fundraisers, such as a cockfight. They expect that the community and the people that come will enjoy the great festivities.
Por su parte el párroco del Santuario de Guadalupe Luis Armando Carrasco, dijo que a raíz del cierre de la mina la población ha cambiado de ritmo. Antes eran los turnos de primera, segunda y tercera, ahora son turnos que tiene la planta maquiladora que es la que da trabajo a los pobladores.
For his part, the priest of the Parish of Guadalupe, Luis Armando Carrasco, said that due to the closure of the mine, the life of the people has changed. Before there was the first, second, and third shift. Nos there are shifts in the textile factory where the people work.
El trabajo de la mina no solo es ex extracción, que fue lo que se acabó en Naica; sino exploración, lo que se hace en la actualidad esperando que venga un proyecto importante para los vecinos.
The work in the mine above Naica was not only ore extraction. It was also mineral exploration, which they are hoping will be the basis for a future project.
El ritmo de vida y las cosas han cambiado en Naica, reiteró el sacerdote, quien invitó a la gente a confiar en que vendrán cosas buenas para la localidad.
The rhythm of life has changed in Naica, reiterated the priest, when he invited the people to reassure that good things will come for the community.
There is, for the town of Naica, good news; there is an effort underway to reopen the mine.