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Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

PHOENIX — Arizona has thousands of abandoned mines — and only two state workers whose job it is to close them.

They could soon get a lot more help.

Under Senate Bill 1717, which is flying through the Legislature with bipartisan support, the state would spend $1.1 million for equipment and six full-time positions for the Mine Inspector’s Office to accelerate the closings.

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

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

Paul Marsh, whom Ducey appointed as mine inspector in October, told lawmakers that three groups 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, plus rented equipment for filling in or collapsing the mines.

Marsh’s office has 14 full-time employees in total, most of whom work to check on the safety of active mines. The office began working in earnest to close abandoned mines in the 1990s, and dedicated funding of less than $200,000 annually for the project was set up in 2009.

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

The priority, Marsh said, are mines near populated areas. He described a recent case from Vail in which a homeowner discovered a mineshaft 30 feet deep in his backyard after wood that had covered it “finally rotted away.”

Marsh said the two-man team identifies 12-15 mines a month that they put up fences and signs around. Even with the new funding and yearly grants from the federal government, he said, closing all the mines would “probably take 20-plus years.”

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

Rep. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican, told Marsh during the hearing that with the state flush with surplus money, Marsh could ask for “a big chunk of cash” with which he could hire private contractors to get more holes closed quickly.

Marsh, a Republican who’s running for the office this year, later told The Arizona Republic that he wasn’t ready to ask for additional money on top of the appropriations request, saying “we must first must first put the proper infrastructure in place” including the hiring of six new employees.

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

In this May 7, 1953, file photo, Navajo miners work at the Kerr McGee uranium mine at Cove, Ariz., on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Kerr-McGee left abandoned uranium mine sites, including contaminated waste rock piles, in the Lukachukai mountains of Arizona and in the Ambrosia Lake area of New Mexico. The Lukachukai mountains are located immediately west of Cove, Ariz., and are a culturally significant part of the Navajo Nation. This site is among thousands that are part of the $5.15 billion settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp. with approximate amount of funding for cleanup efforts and details about the sites, in information provided by the Justice Department.

In this May 7, 1953, file photo, Navajo miners work at the Kerr McGee uranium mine at Cove, Ariz., on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Kerr-McGee left abandoned uranium mine sites, including contaminated waste rock piles, in the Lukachukai mountains of Arizona and in the Ambrosia Lake area of New Mexico. The Lukachukai mountains are located immediately west of Cove, Ariz., and are a culturally significant part of the Navajo Nation. This site is among thousands that are part of the $5.15 billion settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp. with approximate amount of funding for cleanup efforts and details about the sites, in information provided by the Justice Department.

The Arizona landscape is littered with more than 100,000 abandoned mines, including many that date back to the 1800s or even older.

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Indigenous people gathered quartz, turquoise and other minerals, but underground mining flourished as Europeans sought gold, silver, copper and other minerals. These long-vanished legacy miners left all manner of earthwork behind, from shallowly dug bowls to elaborate shafts with horizontal and vertical passageways.

Officials have inventoried the locations of about 20,000 mines, but many of those remain unclosed even though an estimated 13 percent may constitute an “extreme risk” to public safety. The most dangerous are simple vertical shafts near trails, roads and population centers.

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

“Potential dangers include cave-ins from loose rock and rotten timber, deep water, poisonous gases, and discarded, but active explosives,” according to the Mine Inspector’s Office, which released a list of 23 fatal and non-fatal incidents since 1981 to illustrate the problem.

The list includes three high-profile incidents in 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 into a shaft 50 feet deep ; and two people stuck in a shaft 35 feet deep near Quartzsite. They were all successfully rescued.

Two 2008 incidents on the list involve migrants who crossed the international border illegally before falling into mines. Both survived.

Many mineshaft rescue incidents begin with an amateur explorer taking risks while searching for minerals or adventure.

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

“More and more people are going out into the country” and stumbling across mines, he said. “I hate to say it — you can’t fix stupid.”

He described one incident in which a man exploring a horizontal mineshaft stepped on a board that broke through to a 300-foot-deep hole. Luckily, the man landed on ledge 20 feet down and only broke his arm, Tyra said.

“A lot of them are anthill-shaped,” he said. “You get close to it, you kind of slide right down into it.”

He and the state’s other abandoned-mine inspector, Tom White, are both nearing retirement. They work as much of the state as possible, and have the power to force closure of mines on private property, if necessary. The team can inventory mines anywhere, but can only close mines on state land. The federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service pitch in for the immense task with personnel and grants to the Mine Inspector’s Office.

After closing a mine, inspectors must return to ensure it’s still secure. Fences and barbed wire are frequently disturbed by explorers intent on getting in. Some people covet the warning signs, especially earlier versions that contained a skull-and-crossbones image.

Once during mine closings 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 roughing them up to make them less attractive.

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

“It gives me a chance to give back to the country,” the longtime mining-industry worker and veteran said of his job. “If I can save one life, that’s payment enough.”

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