Jerry Tyra of the state Mine Inspector's Office tends to a warning sign at an abandoned mine north of Peoria. CHRISTINE HARVEY / CRONKITE NEWS SERVICE

By Christine Harvey

Cronkite News Service

Jerry Tyra points to ATV and motorcycle tire tracks, spent ammunition and garbage on a 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 Peoria, a fast-growing Phoenix 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.

Rep. Russell L. Jones, R-Yuma, is sponsoring legislation that would allow waste tires in mines in a five-year demonstration project. House Bill 2290 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.

Last week, the House Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee endorsed Jones' bill on a 5-3 vote despite environmental concerns raised.

"Fire hazards, wildlife and threats to ground water suggest there should be an assessment beforehand," said Sandy Bahr, conservation director of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality opposes the bill because it would take away environmental oversight, according to Jim Buster, a legislative liaison for the agency. However, he said, he thought ADEQ could work with Jones on changes the agency would support.