Arizona stands alone with this elected job. The candidates, as you can imagine, are colorful.

Arizona voters will decide who holds the state’s one-of-a-kind office — a position held by the same man since 2006.

Mine Inspector Joe Hart faces Democrat and political newcomer Bill Pierce. Both septuagenarians have colorful stories about mine safety and why they want the job, which was created as part of the Arizona Constitution in 1912.

Arizona is the only state in the country with an elected mine inspector.

Hart says his passion for the job intensified after a 13-year old girl died and her 10-year-old sister was seriously hurt after they fell into an abandoned mine near Chloride in 2007.

“I darn sure want to talk about abandoned mines to anybody that will listen,” Hart said in an interview from his home in Kingman.

Pierce, who lives in Mesa, said he was inspired to run in part to ensure there was a Democrat running for each statewide office.

“The more I researched, the more I thought I could probably do a better job with my expanded experience,” Pierce said. “I figured I could probably do a better job than the gentleman sitting there.”

But he has personal reasons for wanting to enforce safety rules, too. He cites an accident in 1985 when he was working in an Arizona cotton gin and fell through an opening in the floor, thanks  partly to a nonchalant foreman who wouldn’t let him place the safety hatch over the opening.

He broke his shoulder and required about 190 stitches, he said.

“They called my ex-wife, said I was dead,” he said last month when discussing the accident on KPHO-TV. But his cousin helped get him out of the gin, which was on fire, and he recovered. 

“I’m ornery,” he said.

What the mine inspector does

The mine inspector’s office is responsible for enforcing mining law and inspecting mines for violations, conducting safety training, investigating workplace accidents and complaints, and evaluating some of the estimated 100,000 abandoned mines.

The mine inspector must be a full-time job, and inspectors are ineligible if they are simultaneously working for any mining-related company. The annual salary is $50,000.

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The focus on safety will be important for whoever wins the election. While mining is much safer today than in years past, several miners are injured each year at Arizona’s extensive copper, aggregate and other mines.

One hundred years ago, 93 miners died in a year. According to Hart’s last annual report, only one miner died in 2017, at Asarco’s Mission Mine.

The worker was 41, had a wife and three children, and was killed while parked in a Ford utility truck. A 320-ton haul truck drove over his vehicle, killing him instantly, according to the report.

“The miners need good insurance and somebody that will look after them when they need help,” Hart said. “I just hope everybody will get out and vote and keep the mines in Arizona safe so we don’t have any more fatalities.”

Raising the profile

Pierce said he’d like to see the office better funded by the Legislature.

The office has 14 staffers now, including five inspectors in the field, Hart said.

“We are going to have to try to lobby the Legislature and the governor,” Pierce said on KPHO. “We take a page from Red For Ed and make noise. People need to know what is going on.”

Hart said his main priority is securing abandoned mines, and points to the 1,561 abandoned mines his staff has secured during his 12 years in office as reason to vote for him.

“We are just a small agency with a big problem,” he said. “The Legislature promises to give me more money and more people each year, but it never happens.”

Usually, the old mines are boarded up or fenced off to prevent people from going inside, where they can get hurt or trapped.

“I made it my life’s work to make sure nobody dies in an abandoned mine,” Hart said. “We did pretty good until last week,” he added, citing the story of a man who got trapped on his own property, fought off rattlesnakes and was only rescued thanks to being discovered by a friend.

Hart said sometimes he has to negotiate with the mine owners to close tunnels that are no longer in use.

“One guy up here wanted to just keep a mine open so he can write it off,” Hart said. “I had to really get after him.”

Pierce cites experience

Pierce cited his more than 44 years experience working in and around the mining industry, which he said gives him a better perspective than his rival of how to keep workers safe.

He started his career working for the Michigan Department of Transportation as a materials buyer, which required him to visit mines to test the material used to build roads.

Pierce then worked for a series of companies in the private sector, starting with Material Testing Consultants in Michigan, he said, working in quality control and again frequently visiting mines. He retired in 2012.

Hart says he began working in his father’s underground mines when he was 8.

The state previously required the mine inspector to have experience in underground mines, and Hart’s childhood labor was challenged by a Democratic rival in 2010. While the attorney general declined to investigate him that year, the Legislature also eliminated that underground requirement in 2010.

Now the unique elected office requires the office holder to be “practically engaged in, and acquainted with, mines and mining in the state.”

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Hart also worked for Duval Mining Corp. for 20 years, and has owned radio and television stations in Kingman and a cattle company.

Before Hart was elected, the office faced a scandal when his predecessor, Douglas Martin, was sentenced to probation and a deferred jail sentence stemming from the way he procured motor vehicles for his office.

In August 2017, Hart was arrested in Kingman on suspicion of domestic violence by disorderly conduct following a fight with his 59-year-old nephew while they were fixing a water pipe. The case was dismissed.

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