Exchange: Arizona ready to pounce on abandoned mines | Arizona News

By RAY STERN, Republic of Arizona

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona has thousands of abandoned mines — and only two state employees charged with closing them.

You could be getting a lot more help soon.

Under Senate Bill 1717, which is flying through the legislature with bipartisan support, the state would spend $1.1 million on equipment and six full-time jobs for the office of mine inspector to speed up the closures.

That represents more funding than the effort has ever received and about five times the usual annual budget.

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The bill passed the Senate in February and the House Appropriations Committee on March 16 with unanimous support from all Democratic and Republican lawmakers. It still needs a full vote by the House of Representatives and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey to become law.

Paul Marsh, whom Ducey appointed mine inspector in October, told lawmakers three teams of two people would identify and inventory mines in southern, central and northern Arizona. The new funds would purchase a truck and trailer for hauling heavy equipment, as well as rented equipment for topping up or collapsing the mines.

Marsh’s office has a total of 14 full-time employees, most of whom are busy verifying the safety of active mines. The bureau began shutting down abandoned mines in earnest in the 1990s, and in 2009 dedicated funding of less than $200,000 per year was established for the project.

Marsh’s predecessor, Joe Hart, who retired in October after serving in the position since 2006, had repeatedly asked the legislature over the years for a budget increase for abandoned mines, state records show.

The priority, Marsh said, is mines near populated areas. He described a recent Vail case where a homeowner discovered a 30-foot (9-meter) deep mine shaft in his backyard after wood that had covered it “finally rotted.”

Marsh said the two-man team identifies 12-15 mines a month, which they put up fences and signs around. Even with the new funding and annual grants from the federal government, he said it would “probably take more than 20 years” to close all mines.

Ducey’s proposed executive budget for 2023, which earmarked just $46,000 more for next year’s program, shows that the office “secured” 83 mines in 2020 but only nine in 2021.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, told Marsh during the hearing that since the state is awash with excess money, Marsh could ask for “a big chunk of cash” that he could use to hire private contractors to quickly fill more holes conclude.

Marsh, a Republican running for office this year, later told The Arizona Republic that he was unwilling to ask for additional money on top of the funding requests, saying “we have to get the right infrastructure in place first,” including the Hiring of six new employees.

But if the requested funding is approved, he added, his office would be in a better position to “proactively identify mines in areas that are frequently traveled and work to permanently close those mines.”

The Arizona landscape is dotted with more than 100,000 abandoned mines, many of which date back to the 18th century or even older.

Indigenous peoples collected quartz, turquoise, and other minerals, but underground mining flourished as Europeans prospected for gold, silver, copper, and other minerals. These long-gone ancient miners left behind all manner of earthworks, from shallowly dug bowls to elaborate shafts with horizontal and vertical veins.

Officials have inventoried the locations of about 20,000 mines, but many are not yet closed, although an estimated 13% could pose an “extreme risk” to public safety. The most dangerous are simple vertical shafts near paths, roads and built-up areas.

In 2018, the department said the mines have been linked to at least 35 deaths and 22 injuries in the state since 1969.

“Potential hazards include cave-ins from loose rock and rotting wood, deep water, toxic gases, and discarded but active explosives,” according to the Mines Inspectorate, which has published a list of 23 fatal and non-fatal incidents since 1981, illustrating the problem.

The list includes three high-profile incidents over the past three years: a jogger who fell into a mine in the Spur Cross Conservation Area near Cave Creek; a 17-year-old boy who accidentally drove his quad bike down a 15-meter-deep shaft; and two people are stuck in a 11 meter deep shaft near Quartzsite. They were all rescued successfully.

Two incidents from 2008 on the list involve migrants illegally crossing the international border before being caught in mines. Both survived.

Many mine rescue incidents begin with an amateur explorer taking risks in search of minerals or adventure.

One of the state’s two vacated mine inspectors, Jerry Tyra of Kingman, is in his 70s and has held the job for 20 years.

“More and more people are going to the countryside” and tripping over mines, he said. “I hate to say it – you can’t fix stupidity.”

He described an incident where a man exploring a horizontal mineshaft stepped on a plank which broke through to a 300 foot deep hole. Luckily, the man landed on a ledge 6 meters down and only broke his arm, Tyra said.

“Many of them are in the shape of an anthill,” he said. “You get close to him, you slide right in.”

He and fellow state inspector of abandoned mines, Tom White, are both nearing retirement. They work for the state as much as possible and have the power to force the closure of mines on private land if necessary. The team can inventory mines anywhere, but only close mines on state land. The Federal Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service are taking on the immense task of providing staff and grants to the Mine Inspectorate.

After a mine is closed, inspectors must return to make sure it’s still safe. Fences and barbed wire are often disturbed by explorers aiming to get inside. Some people covet the warning signs, especially earlier versions that included an image of a skull and crossbones.

Once, during mine closures near Wickenburg, thieves stole six signs in three days, Tyra said. The BLM taught him the trick of bending the edges of the signs and roughening them to make them less attractive.

Tyra said the new funding is “a really good thing.” His latest project is a group of 60 dangerous mines north of Phoenix, most of them near popular hiking trails.

“It gives me a chance to give something back to the country,” the longtime miner and veteran said of his job. “If I can save a life, that’s enough reward.”

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