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Region's basement stores our stuff

Where limestone lay treasures now repose

Sunday, November 26, 2000

By Karen Kane, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BOYERS -- It's a perfect fall day. Trees are awash in crimson and orange, the sky a blanket of blue, the air crisp, the sun warm.

Security supervisor Jim Brown of Franklin leaves work at Iron Mountain National Underground Storage in Butler County. He is one of about 1,200 employees at the site, which holds some of the nation's most valuable records. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

But there's no hint of nature's glory within Tom Roth's corporate confines. There -- beneath a mountain, behind a 20-ton steel gate, between a host of rocks and hard places -- the air is always cool and the sun never shines. The only glimpse of Mother Nature is a dimly lit view of rough-hewn limestone walls and dirt floors.

Welcome to Iron Mountain National Underground Storage, known by the locals as "the mines" and home to some of America's most valuable assets and vital records.

A sampling of the treasures:

Six million trademarks and patents for such inventions as the Singer sewing machine, Harry Houdini's diver's suit, the Statue of Liberty, Furbee, Eli Whitney's cotton gin.

The Social Security applications filed by every resident of the United States since the system began in 1937.

Pension records for federal employees, from clerks to presidents.

Blue

Original recordings of such musical artists as Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Judy Garland, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra and Christina Aguilera.

Almost a half-million cubic feet of movie film from such studios as Disney, including animated classics such as "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty."

Daily computer tapes from Pittsburgh banking institutions, medical records from the region's hospitals, thousands of boxes of important business papers and millions of rolls of microfilm.

Iron Mountain is one of a kind, an abandoned limestone mine that's been converted to an underground records storage facility that pairs sprawling space with security of brow-raising caliber. Armed officers guard a gated entrance where visitors must present two forms of ID and be willing to undergo a search. Inside, visitors to certain sectors undergo an "air shower" and are required to step on fly-paper style mats to remove excess dust and dirt from their clothing and shoes.

With about 1,200 employees reporting for work there in Butler County, the location isn't top secret. But, Roth, Iron Mountain general manager, does what he can to keep the specifics hush-hush.

"That's what our customers expect of us," he said.

They number many -- about 1,800 -- that include federal offices, film studios and financial institutions.

 
   
Manager loves job 'down under'

 
 

Preserving records

And while most of the clients rent space in climate-controlled storage vaults and subcontract the services of Iron Mountain's 120 employees, about 10 maintain hefty on-site staffs for work as varied as confidential paper shredding and computer imaging of critical government documents.

Ed Zin, a staff scientist with the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, N.Y., calls the facility's collection impressive and precious.

Zin has firsthand knowledge of the mines, having toured them and tested the air conditions more than once. As a nonprofit research group funded by the Rochester Institute of Technology, the 15-year-old IPI has developed a measurement system that essentially rates the life expectancy of objects as well as the environmental conditions -- temperature and humidity -- that cause deterioration.

IPI and Iron Mountain often share customers.

"Our clients are the people who store their stuff down there. We look at the objects they want to store, and we can project their life if stored under varying sets of conditions," he said.

The information can help prospective clients determine what kind of storage they want to pay for. Iron Mountain fees range from $5 to $50 per cubic foot of storage space per year. The cost goes up as the temperature and humidity of the storage vault goes down.

IPI doesn't rate or recommend private companies, but Zin said a recent testing of a vault at the Boyers facility showed Iron Mountain doing what it said it would do. "They were maintaining conditions fairly well," Zin said.

Roth said the old limestone mine was ideally suited for secure preservation.

In a geologically stable part of the country, between 180 and 220 feet underground, the natural temperature is 54 degrees. And though the humidity of the caverns must be removed with electrical dryers powered by their own generators, the catacombs are unusually dry due to a layer of impervious shale over the maze that once was a system of 20-foot-thick veins of limestone. Mixed with coke, limestone transforms iron ore to steel.

U.S. Steel owned the land in 1900 and hauled out the valuable limestone, first with mules and then with trolley cars, until 1950, when it became cheaper to buy the surface-mined stuff from Michigan and ship it by rail.

It was the height of the Cold War era, when nuclear paranoia was rampant and the world watched a war-wounded Europe trying to rebuild.

"There was a realization that companies that had lost their records during the war might never rebuild. Strategic American firms were being encouraged to develop systems for the safe storage of their irreplaceable records," Roth said.

Larry Yont was in charge of U.S. Steel's valuable documents. It struck him that the Boyers limestone mine would be perfect, not just for records storage but for use as a shelter for Pittsburgh corporate executives in the event of a nuclear attack.

He bought the property in 1954 and became the first owner of National Underground Storage, which was purchased in June 1998 by the Boston-based Iron Mountain for $39 million, including the cost of a records management company in the Pacific Northwest. Officials of the company, which posted 1999 revenues in excess of $800 million, would not break out the price of the mines.

Yont's instincts were right. At least partially. The records storage end of the business took hold in a big way. The same could not be said for the apartment/bomb shelter concept. Though a few Pittsburgh firms leased dwelling space -- one even opting to equip a minisurgical center -- interest quickly waned.

"People realized that no one would have time to make the [55- mile] drive to Boyers from Pittsburgh if the bombs started flying," Roth said. Yont's efforts weren't a total waste, however; a '50s-era oven and cook top plus all the original counters are used today by Roth and his staff as a lunch room.

Tom Roth, general manager, is illuminated by the headlights of a golf cart that Iron Mountain employees use to travel around the former limestone mine.(Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Space galore

The kitchen isn't the only throwback to bygone days. Though lights have been hung, shelves built and office furniture purchased, there's no mistaking that Iron Mountain was once an active mine.

But for a coat of paint and a pick-ax safety inspection that involves removal of any loose pieces, the walls of the maze-like caverns remain much as they were after the dynamited limestone was carted away. And though 20 miles of roadway have been paved to accommodate transport by golf carts and a few cars that are permitted for handicapped and management employees, dirt roads are aplenty. And despite overhead fluorescent lights drilled every few feet into limestone ceilings, the overall effect is dim.

Yes, this is a mine: A labyrinth of 16-foot-tall caves sprawling 200 feet under 1,000 acres. Only a fraction of the expanse, about 133 acres, is used for records storage. There are 110 vaults or storage centers, adding up to 1.4 million square feet of storage space. The rest has yet to be developed, despite Iron Mountain's best efforts to create more and more office space. In all, about three dozen new customers are signed, two miles of roadway paved and 50,000 square feet of storage space finished each year.

"Finished" may be an overstatement. Roth uses the word "developed" because even in the "developed" areas, little has been done to mask the history of the space. Hewn walls are exposed everywhere, and even cylindrical dynamite shafts are visible. Excepting a concrete block wall here, some paneling there and an occasional mural meant to mimic the outdoors, tenants accept what can't be avoided: They work in the mines.

Walt Disney stores its movies at Iron Mountain. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

"You don't even notice it after a while," said Donna Krepin, site manager of the Patent and Trademark Office and a nine-year veteran of the mines. The toughest part of working underground? "You have no idea what the weather is outside until you leave for the day unless someone calls you on the telephone," she said.

Not a big deal, said Janet Evans of the Social Security Administration. She's been descending her way to work for 34 years. "These are good jobs. People want to work here," she said.

Roth confirmed that employee turnover was generally low. Jobs are coveted by local residents. Most of the jobs require little more than a high school education and, though the salaries are $8.50 to $14 an hour, the benefits are good, and the positions are secure.

Security is the name of the game for Iron Mountain's customers, said Joanne Feltman, vice president of media asset management for BMG Entertainment in New York City. BMG is a multinational company with holdings that include RCA and Arista Records.

Feltman picked Iron Mountain as the company's North American safe house for BMG's precious belongings six years ago. "We've got recordings here from the turn of the century, stuff from RCA Victor. We've got Frank Sinatra performing on NBC radio shows, early Judy Garland demos. We've got works of art in the form of album covers and photos signed by recording stars like Christina Aguilera. It's irreplaceable," Feltman said.

It wasn't hard for Feltman to settle on the Boyers facility when she began to look for a place where BMG media assets could be secure, preserved, cataloged and easily accessed. "We did a lot of looking around and this was, by far, the best," she said.

Among its selling points: vaults with 8-inch-thick doors and a sensor-triggered ventilation system that resists fire for four hours, five electrical generators and enough diesel fuel to supply power independently for a week, a federally certified water treatment plant and fire company, round-the-clock security and maintenance, employees with security clearances and space galore.

Roth sees no end to Iron Mountain's expansion. With less than a third of the caverns developed and high demand for storage space, he predicts a bright future for this dark space.



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