PEORIA – Jerry Tyra points to ATV and motorcycle tire tracks, bullet shells and garbage. People frequent this patch of desert.
Then he points to two deep holes – abandoned mine shafts with no fences and no warning signs, just a few miles north of this fast-growing suburb.
“This is one of the more dangerous mines that I have come across,” said Tyra, an abandoned mine specialist for the state.
Tyra plants metal fence posts with warning signs – “STAY OUT! STAY ALIVE!” – but that’s about all he can do about this hazard for now. There wasn’t enough money to fill the thousands of abandoned mine shafts around Arizona even before the state’s budget crisis.
“I’ve probably covered a hundred in the last year and a half, and that’s not even a good start,” he said.
Tyra said he could fill mines cheaper and faster if he were allowed to use waste tires. State law limits him to concrete, gravel and bricks, which he said are expensive to obtain and haul.
“We could get all those tires and put them to good use,” he said, noting that waste tires are piled up around Arizona.
Rep. Russell L. Jones, a Yuma Republican, is sponsoring legislation that would allow waste tires in mines in a five-year demonstration project. H2290 would allow the Arizona state mine inspector to test tires in five abandoned or inactive mines.
Jones said the bill addresses not only abandoned mines but the problem of waste tires that the state hasn’t found enough ways to recycle. Leaving tires piled up creates the possibility of huge fires.
“It is an ecological disaster waiting to happen,” Jones said.
The measure would require that mines filled with tires be covered with earthen material at least 10 feet deep. It also would require the mine inspector to convene a working group to assess the effectiveness of waste tires as mine fill and evaluate potential public safety and water quality problems.
The program would be funded by gifts, grants and donations, according to the bill.
In 2009, Jones introduced a broader bill that would have allowed waste tires in mines after state officials addressed safety and environmental issues.That bill won House approval but was held in the Senate.
This week, the House Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee endorsed Jones’ bill on a 5-3 vote despite concerns raised by an environmental group and the state’s own environmental experts.
Sandy Bahr, conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said the state mine inspector’s priority isn’t environmental health.
“Fire hazards, wildlife and threats to ground water suggest there should be an assessment beforehand,” she said.
Jim Buster, a legislative liaison for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, told lawmakers his agency opposes the bill because it would take away environmental oversight. However, he said he thought ADEQ could work with Jones on changes the agency would support.
Democratic Reps. Lynne Pancrazi of Yuma, Christopher Deschene of St. Michaels and Patricia V. Fleming of Sierra Vista, voted against the bill, saying they had too many questions about how it would work. But they said they would be open to supporting the legislation on the floor after discussing the issues further with Jones and stakeholders.
Jones said he would arrange that meeting and amend the bill as needed.
Rep. Jerry Weiers, a Glendale Republican, said he had many of his own questions, but he said the bill is heading in the right direction.
“I don’t know how many more kids are going to have to die driving their ATVs into these mine pits,” Weiers said. “But all you gotta do is look into a parent’s eyes and try to explain to them why we sat on our hands and didn’t do something we could have done.”