The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

September 22, 2012

Divers, owners say goodbye to ‘Big Blue’

ORONOGO, Mo. — For John and Regina Mueller, Oronogo Circle is their backyard.

The 12-acre, open-pit mine closed in 1948 and soon filled with water. With a depth of more than 200 feet and visibility of 50 feet or more, the mine became a popular spot for divers.

The Muellers spent 30 years turning the flooded mine into Captain John’s Sports and Scuba, a recreation park and full-service scuba dive shop at the site that became known as “Big Blue” and “Blue Hole.”

But now, under the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency, contractors will soon begin filling in the pit with mine waste.

As for the cleanup of the mining wastes around Oronogo, John said, “I do agree they need to clean this up. I don’t agree with the way they are doing it.’’

John said if it had been 10 years ago, he would have resisted plans to use the former mine for cleanup, but he added that on the advice of an attorney, who indicated they might have little choice in the matter, they closed the business. They are being compensated for the loss of their business by one of the companies the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as responsible for the mine waste. The Muellers, who will keep title to the land, had hoped their interest in the property would have been bought out, too.

It’s not the end they envisioned for their life’s work.

“I spent 30 years turning a rock pit into a recreation park,” John said. “The mining company came in and raped (the land) and this is just another rape.”

Rebranding

When John and his partners opened what was then called the Blue Water Recreation Park and Scuba School, they faced rebranding a location that had a bad reputation.

“This was a party spot,” said Regina, of the days before the dive shop opened. Beneath the water, a sunken boat that was surrounded by years worth of discarded beer cans and bottles is one of the dive features. The boat is called Budweiser.

Since then, Captain John’s has become known to the diving community as a place to train, with a 12-foot indoor pool, sunken platforms in the lake for underwater staging, guidelines for divers and many sunken features to visit, including a Piper Twin Engine plane, which the owners sank into a little more than 40 feet of water in 1987.

With the location closing, they have brought the plane back up to sell for scrap metal.

“We got it up with lift bags, the same way we put it down there,” John said.

In addition to the recreational diving that happened in Oronogo Circle, John holds Professional Association of Diving Instructors certifications that allow him to teach technical diving, such as diving deeper than 130 feet, entering caves, mine shafts and submerged wrecks.

While John said the location is not the kind of place divers would want to visit multiple times for recreation, the nature of the lake made it ideal for training for both recreational and technical divers, certification classes and practice dives before dive trips.

“For training, for learning, for keeping your skills sharp, this was one of the best places for it,” John said.

Dangers of diving

Over the years, John said he heard “wild stories” about the dangers of diving, and of his site in particular. While he acknowledged that people sometimes made potentially dangerous choices, he believes that diving, when done correctly and with respect for skill level, is a safe sport.

In the 30 years he was running the shop, John said he can remember six or seven drownings in the lake. Most, he said, were the result of cardiac events or what he called “weekend warriors” pushing beyond their limits, with a few being diving accidents in which the cause was never determined.

Jim Foresman, a biology teacher at Pittsburg (Kan.) High School, has his recreational diving certification card and used to dive Oronogo Circle with friends.

“Everyone I ever knew there dove within their capabilities,” he said.

Foresman said he’s been out of the water for a few years, but if he was to return to diving he would need to reacquaint himself with diving equipment.

“That’s why Oronogo was kind of nice, it has known features,” he said. “It was a pretty controlled environment, with known depths. If you wanted to dive to 40 feet you knew when you got to a certain point.”

When the contractors are finished and the lake is filled in, the site will be covered with a clay cap leaving an open field that Regina said will be “worthless land” that no one will be able to build on until it all settles — which the Muellers estimate could be anywhere from five to 20 years.

The sounds of heavy equipment carry across the water to the rocky backyard of the Muellers’ house as trucks dump dirt, rock and debris into the lake. There are docks still floating in water that is, for now, still blue.

“It breaks my heart,” John said.

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