WHEN SOMEONE DIGS YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD

MINERS--SPURRED BY NEW TECHNOLOGY AND INPENDING REGULATORY REFORM--SCURRY TO LOCK UP MINERAL RIGHTS. RESIDENTS OF WALKER, ARIZONA, FEAR THEY'RE ABOUT TO GET THE SHAFT.

McCabe insists she is "not really an environmentalist, or an activist."
"But when something threatens your home," she says, "you become active pretty quick.

"I don't usually get involved in things like 'causes.' But this," she gestures out the window of her cabin, "is worth saving."
McCabe has become the leader of a loose confederation of Walker homeowners, drawn from both the 100 or so full-time residents and the additional hundreds of weekend visitors, who oppose plans by the Ohio-based Marra/Majestic to reopen a long-closed mine known as the King Pin.

Most of the homes and cabins in Walker are on private land--land "grandfathered in" when the Prescott National Forest was created. But the town is interwoven with federal forest parcels that bump up against the private lots.

The King Pin claim, for instance, sits on an island of government ground, surrounded by privately held property and dozens of homes.

That, says McCabe, is what makes it dangerous.
"This was once a wild mining town, that's true," McCabe says. "But people need to realize that it isn't like that anymore. People have moved here, built their lives and homes here, on the premise that Walker is just a good, quiet place to live.

"It's not a mining town anymore, and living next to a loud, polluting mine is not what anyone moved here for."
But according to state mine officials and even the prospective mine operators themselves, noise, pollution and depletion of the town's water supply are exactly what residents can expect.

Marra/Majestic's president, Leon McCarra, admits that if the King Pin yields what the company's investors hope and pray it will, up to 1,000 tons of ore could be brought out of the mine every day for five years. That means 40 trucks a day, rolling down Walker's dirt roads--roads that sometimes only accommodate that many vehicles a week--creating clouds of choking dust.

But the noise and dirt of this new truck route are minor inconveniences compared to what residents fear may result when dynamite, an inevitable tool of the underground miner, is used in the King Pin. In addition to the obvious safety questions of using explosives within 200 yards of homes, there is an added danger: tunnels left over from the last gold rush.

These catacombs, in various stages of decay and disrepair, run for hundreds of miles under the town. What will happen to these old shafts, tunnels and wells that permeate the geology of the area when the ground starts shaking from explosions?

Terry McCabe thinks he knows the answer.
"Things are going to fall apart," he says. "Heck, every year just from rain we get big sink holes that the county has to come out and fill in. If the area is unstable enough to be affected by a little water, it is unstable enough to be affected by blasting."
While Walker residents speculate about their homes--many of which were built by amateur carpenters with materials stripped from old mining cabins, and thus are not paragons of stability to begin with--being swallowed up by the earth, they also have begun to fret over the environmental threats.

Mining has toxic by-products--most notably arsenic and cyanide--that if not disposed of properly can easily leach into the ground and, eventually, the groundwater. Some tailings left over from the last mining boom have been decomposing and running off into a creek next to the McCabes' cabin.

This despite a $1.5 million state-sponsored cleanup effort a few years ago that aimed to remedy the dangerous environmental conditions in the area.

"Our creek still turns a strange shade of blue, and sometimes we get weird foam," says Tara McCabe, who plans to ask state environmental officials to test the creek next time it changes hue. "When you see stuff like that, you really begin to wonder if we need to further stir up the poisons in the ground here with more mining."
Bill Haas, assistant state mining inspector, says McCabe and other Walker residents "have legitimate reasons to be concerned" about any mining resurgence in their town.

Haas, a 30-year veteran of the mining industry who recently came to work for the state Mine Department and has conducted preliminary inspections on the King Pin, warns that "no one really knows what the effect of blasting in the area will be."

"But even more importantly, there is a distinct possibility that any serious mining in the area could seriously deplete the town's water supply."
All of Walker's homes are served by individual wells, which tap underground crevices filled by a few shallow underground streams. The water supply is limited and tenuous.

Haas warns that blasting and digging could easily alter the fractured aquifer, drying wells up.

"It could be very difficult for some of those folks to live there without water," Haas says. "That's why they would like the state to shut the whole project down.

"But we can't. Our hands are tied."
That's because the 1872 Mining Law doesn't allow the state or federal government to restrict mining on federal land--only regulate it in minor ways, such as requiring miners to restore the land to its "original condition" after operations are complete.

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