For nearly 30 years, an informal group of local desert rats has traipsed across Southern Arizona on a mission to find and mark dangerous abandoned mines. While that group is still around and eager to work, the government has backed off on its support, hampering efforts.
The Hazardous Abandoned Mine Finders, a group of nine men founded by Fred Fielder, has gone out nearly weekly since 1989 to pinpoint mine shafts across Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties and erect warning signs. In nearly three decades, the Green Valley crew has posted about 10,000 signs at shafts that were once mining operations. They've marked up to 14 in one day, and in 1996, the group put up 667 signs.
“If you are out there and see one of these signs, the odds are 90 percent that we put that there,” according to Marlin White, the group's current leader.
Their activity is altruistic, but they also help meet a legal requirement. According to state law, any mine operator or someone with an active, closing or abandoned mine on their land must, at a minimum, put up fencing and a sign warning of danger. Yet there are thousands of shafts, many hundreds of feet deep, still unmarked and unsecured.
Ray Smith, one of the group's early members who retired from it several years ago, said they originally approached the state mine inspector's office to help with the effort. They were rebuffed, but were embraced by the U.S. Forest Service after they approached that agency, he said.
At first the group made their own signs with plasticized paper on wood boards – which Smith called “terrible” – but eventually they received aluminum signs from the Forest Service. The agency also provided bolts, stakes and radios to the group. Smith estimates that the group must have hit around 90 percent of the mines around Green Valley.
But White says the Mine Finders knows of at least 20,000 locations that still need signs, and every time they go out that number grows. The problem is, they no longer have any signs to post.
The Forest Service stopped providing them more than two years ago, and communication with the agency became strained, which White attributed to a turnover in Forest Service staffing and newly voiced concerns about liability if a group member is injured.
Pete Ribotto, who led the group before White, said the reason he heard was financial – the agency just didn't have the funding.
Smith said it's true that they have run into some trouble. Over the years, two members have needed to be airlifted due to broken legs and another because of a heart attack, but every person in the group is physically capable of walking the rugged desert terrain, he said.
Neither he nor Ribotto said they were hopeful another agreement could be reached. And that's ultimately trouble for any government agency, Smith said, because it leaves them liable if someone is injured in an unmarked mine.
White said he's still trying to work something out, having contacted the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service in the past year, but so far hasn't gotten anywhere. Another option is the group can purchase signs and materials to put them up, but would need funding. Since they are an informal group and not a non-profit, getting grants is difficult and they are wary of taking money.
“We're not looking for the money; we would go get the signs and we would be reimbursed,” he said.
Holes to fill
The group's absence is leaving some big holes to fill. With an estimated 100,000 abandoned mine shafts across the state, that's a lot of signs and fencing.
Julie Swartzbaugh, deputy director of the Arizona State Mine Inspector's office, said her office has heard of the Green Valley group but has not worked with them during the tenure of current state mine inspector Joe Hart.
“This administration doesn't encourage that because of the safety issues,” Swartzbaugh said.
The state mine inspector's office is working to secure abandoned mines, but it's an uphill fight. The office is allocated $194,000 a year for the effort, she said. The office has a staff of 12, with two of those being solely dedicated to abandoned mines across the entire state, one in the northern part of the state, one in the south. The agency has four mine inspectors who help, but they are also in charge of inspecting current mining operations.
To cover more ground, since 2010 the office has been working with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on abandoned mines, Swartzbaugh said. A similar agreement is in place with the state Game and Fish Department. Any time one of these agencies reports an abandoned mine, someone is dispatched to sign and fence it, she said. If a shaft is on private property, the owners are sent a notice because they are liable to secure any abandoned mines on their land.
In the past year, the office has fenced and posted signs at 64 mines in Pima County, she said.
Heidi Schewel, with the Coronado National Forest, said an employee who dealt with abandoned mines has retired and she is not sure whether the replacement was familiar with the Green Valley group. The National Forest does have a program to fence and sign abandoned mines on its lands but she was unable to immediately provide details.
June Lowery, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said the agency hasn't worked with the Hazardous Abandoned Mine Finders. The group approached them in 2013, but the agency declined out of concerns for safety, she said.
If a mine site on BLM land is brought to their attention, someone is sent to fence and sign it, she said. Lowery said she couldn't find an estimate on the number of abandoned mines that might be on BLM land.