Blow My Mine
President Bush was just in town, which meant a city of three million got its bowels put in a security vise so the incumbent could look interested in education.
On Wednesday, he was at Mesa Community College to congratulate college officials on their job-training efforts. It was basically just another campaign stop. Highway 60 was jammed up and cops seemed to be hovering at every corner. Strange helicopters dropped and rose from rooftops and parking lots. German shepherds sniffed, men in black sunglasses spoke into their lapels. It was all so uncomfortably martial.
So I waited the whole thing out on the fourth floor of the Executive Towers. Our "education governor" was upstairs, but I was down with the really important elected official, the elected official who garnered more votes than our governor or attorney general or any other state official in the last election. Yes, I was hanging with the most popular elected official in Arizona over the last decade -- Doug Martin.
Again, the name is Doug Martin. Remember? You see his name every four years next to the title "State Mine Inspector." You voted for him. Everybody votes for him. Sure, he's usually the only candidate, but you voted for him.
Doug is used to jokes. The jokes are the easy part. What's tough is when the disrespect shows up in budget cuts. In the last 15 years (he got the job in 1989), his staff has been cut in half. Now it's just him, some office staff and six inspectors.
This is not good. No joke. This is seriously bad. That's why I'm hanging with Doug while the president's men are outside screwing up our city.
Because we were talking about real terrorism, real security, real education. Because we're talking about mines and all the really nasty stuff a bad guy can do with one.
Watch the canary:
There are 80,000 abandoned mines in Arizona. Mine commission staffers have indelicately labeled them "Iraqi Hiltons."
Several hundred of these mines sit within a mile or so of most of Arizona's most critical bits of infrastructure. The Palo Verde nuclear plant. The dams of the Salt River. Flight paths, bridges, canals, aquifer recharging stations, electrical substations, my house.
About 230 million pounds of explosives come into the state each year for operations at the mines that are still open.
Another one billion gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid comes into the state for leeching operations at mines.
These are all estimates. You can't pinpoint a true number of mines or their deadly supplies. Nobody can. That's the problem.
"Basically, we're flying blind regarding an immense amount of explosives and potential hiding places for people who might want to do us harm," Martin tells me. "In our mind, it's a huge gap in the security net in Arizona. It's a time bomb that's been ignored."
Indeed, officials don't even know where all those explosives and acids are going, when they're going, who they're going to and by what route. As things stand, if you were a terrorist, it would not be difficult at all to buy an old mine, buy some explosives and hide the explosives in your mine until that call comes from the abandoned mines of eastern Afghanistan.
Which is even scarier when you realize how much domestic terrorists -- those militia nut bags everybody feared before 9/11 -- love Arizona. For example, we still don't know if Timothy McVeigh got some of his ammonium nitrate while hanging out around Kingman.
And now, thanks to mapping work done by Mine Inspector employees, many of those abandoned mines have been located, mapped and given GPS locations that can be easily accessed on the Web. The plan was to figure out where all the dangerous holes in the state were and try to fence them off to stop body dumping and jackass exploration (which often ends in self-inflicted body dumping). Then the money ran out for the fences. Now any goober with a $100 Garmin -- be it a Cub Scout or Cub Hamas -- can punch in coordinates and be escorted to any mine of his liking.
Martin has known this stuff for years. Even before 9/11, he was rattling around the statehouse like a Tommyknocker warning of collapse. But he was ignored. Martin always gets ignored because he's the Mine Inspector.
Which, according to state law, means his job is to keep mines safe for miners.
But this is the 21st century. Jobs change in time. He believes that in this increasingly urban, increasingly technological, increasingly hostile environment, it should not only be his job to protect Arizona miners, but also Arizona citizens.
Yes, he has a plan. He even has a bill ready to go to legislators. It's a smart, specific, self-funded plan based on existing technology. And although legislators seem to take pleasure in ignoring Doug Martin, they should take a serious look at what he now has to offer.
Martin wants to change state law so that anyone who manufactures or receives explosives to be used in the state must notify the mine inspector prior to delivery explaining the size of the order, the delivery date, the type of explosive being used and the route of delivery.
Martin and his staff then would create a database allowing them, or any state or federal law enforcement agency, immediate access to the location and amount of any shipment of explosives within the state.
Also, Martin wants all employees of mining operations in the state to obtain a "State of Arizona Mining Identification Card." Like a driver's license, all the license holder's information would be kept in the Mine Inspector's database, which also would be accessible by law enforcement.
The logistics of the system are being mapped out by Martin's chief information officer, Ben Armstrong, a decorated war vet, system integrations guru and, most important, a good guy who, in frightening detail, can think like a bad guy.
The Mining ID cards would be created using Department of Transportation machinery, would be accomplished during Mine Inspector training sessions (which all of the state's 6,000 miners must take once a year) and would be paid for with money raised from licensing fees.
"We would then have a database where we had a much better grasp of who everybody was and where everything was going," Armstrong says. "With that in hand, then you begin to have the chance to spot the anomalies that should cause you concern."
For the first time, for example, someone would be able to track the purchase of explosives without having to go through records at individual mines or manufacturers, which neither the limited staff of the Mine Inspector nor the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has time to do. Cross-referenced with Mine Inspector information on the output and size of Arizona's mines, investigators could more quickly spot nefarious activity.
"Say we see a small mine is buying up a thousand pounds of explosives from several different sources for a mine that should be only using 500 pounds a month for the job they need to do," Armstrong says. "That would send up a red flag. Right now, there's no way anybody ever sees a red flag."
An added benefit: Any additional funds raised by the licensing program could, in theory, be funneled toward the expensive task of blocking access to abandoned mines. Even if it doesn't stop a terrorist attack, it might just save an adventurous Boy Scout or two from a deadly fall.
All good. But legislators likely will be hearing from mine owners, miners and explosives makers and distributors who don't want the additional headaches of such a system.
But a few headaches are clearly a small price to pay for the added layer of security and safety such a system would offer to the people of Arizona.
And really, it's about time legislators show a little respect to the most popular elected official in Arizona.
Whatever the hell his name is.
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