State inspector wants funding for safer mines - East Valley Tribune: News

State inspector wants funding for safer mines

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Posted: Tuesday, September 11, 2007 5:04 pm | Updated: 5:42 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Arizona State Mine Inspector Joe Hart wants $1.2 million for each of the next 10 years to start making at least some of the estimated 100,000 abandoned mines around the state safe.

That would be a significant boost in his budget. This year he got just $50,000 from lawmakers.

But Hart wants to do more than simply fence the shafts his inspectors find. He wants to actually fill them up with dirt, a much more expensive process.

The new push for funding follows the death of a girl earlier this month near Chloride, a small town north of Kingman.

Rikki Howard, 13, died when her all-terrain vehicle drove into the abandoned shaft. Her sister, Casie Hicks, 10, survived the 125-foot fall.

Hart said he knows of at least three other nearby shafts.

The problem with fences alone, he said, is vandals,

"We leave bat gates on them so the bats can get in and the snakes can get out and they tear those up,'' he said.

"You spend all this money on just maintenance on them,'' Hart continued. "I just want to fill them up.''

Hart acknowledged that $1.2 million a year is a big jump, especially with state lawmakers already looking at places to trim spending. So he hopes to take some cash away from other state agencies.

Hart figures that $400,000 could come from the state Attorney General's Office because fewer accidents will lead to fewer lawsuits against the state for that agency to defend.

Similarly, he said the state Land Department, which owns some of the places where these abandoned mines are located -- and presumably could be liable -- should also give up $400,000.

And Hart said he should get $400,000 from the state Department of Environmental Quality. That, he said, will enable his agency to "afford to buy all of their permits'' for the work that will be necessary.

Gov. Janet Napolitano, asked Tuesday if she's willing to support additional funding for Hart's agency, was noncommittal.

She noted that Hart, like her, is elected directly by voters. "The question should be addressed to him, what is he willing to do,'' Napolitano said.

The governor also said there is a role for the private sector, noting many of those mines may be on private land or at least were "patented'' mining claims on public lands.

Hart said the problem is not with active mines and owners, who take care to guard their finds, but with those that may have been abandoned a century ago or more. He said his agency has been working with county assessors to figure out ownership but those records sometimes produce dead ends.

He said the best course might be to fix the hazards now and worry about who is financially responsible later.

There is precedent for that in state and federal "superfund'' laws, where hazardous waste sites are cleaned up with public money and courts subsequently determined who must provide reimbursement.

Hart also has been looking for donations to fill the gap.

This year he secured $50,000 for dealing with abandoned mines from Phelps Dodge Mining Co.

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