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Father of slaying victim seeks funds to close abandoned mines

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SALT LAKE CITY — The father of a young man who was brutally killed and thrown down a mine shaft near Eureka asked Sen. Mike Lee on Tuesday if he could find some money to close abandoned mine openings.

"There's a lot of danger out there, and we don't want anybody going in these holes, so we need to get them covered up one way or another," said Eureka resident Bill Powell, adding many people ride four-wheelers in the area.

Lee, R-Utah, said he would look into the current protocol and regulations of open mine shafts under Interior Department jurisdiction. "But certainly these things should be closed, and not put in a position where people can easily or accidentally fall into," he said.

Lee spoke to Bill Powell on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" on remote in Eureka on Tuesday.

Bill Powell's son, Riley Powell, 18, and Breezy Otteson, 17, went missing last December. After nearly three months of searching, investigators were led to the Tintic Standard Mine where the bound bodies were found on a ledge about 100 feet down.

Jerrod William Baum, 41, faces two counts of aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and two counts of desecration of a dead body in connection with the couple's deaths.

An estimated 20,000 mine openings are scattered across Utah, about 80 percent of which sit on federal land, according to the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. The remainder are on state and private land.

The state's Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program receives about $3 million a year from the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement through a fee on coal mining. It also gets $60,000 a year from the state to help expedite some of its projects, said division spokeswoman Hollie Brown.

Crews will close about 82 mine openings on private land with backfill and rebar grates in the Diamond Gulch area south of Eureka beginning at the end of May.

The mine where Riley Powell's and Otteson's bodies were found is on private property and not part of the current closure project, Brown said. It could, however, be part of the next phase provided it meets the federal criteria and the division gets permission from the landowner, she said.

Utah's program has closed 6,000 mine openings since its inception in 1983.

On the radio program, the senator also fielded questions from Tintic High School students on gun control, immigration and medical marijuana.

One Tintic High student asked Lee his thoughts on gun control and school safety.

Lee said on any proposed gun control measure he wants to know what effect it would have on deterring and preventing violent crime compared to the impact on law-abiding citizens.

"One of the things we don't want to do is make something illegal in a way that will be followed and observed and respected as law by those who are already abiding by the law and completely ignored by those who are willing to engage in criminal behavior," he said. "It's a constant balancing test."

Asked if he favored building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Lee said he's "sympathetic" to the idea that some kind of barrier could be a good thing to stop uncontrolled immigration. He said he's "less certain" about whether it should be a single, contiguous wall or combination of walls, fences and electronic monitors.

"But I do think it's important to put up some type of a barrier so that we can protect our country," he said.

On legalizing medical medical marijuana, Lee said "we're in an odd sort of limbo" because federal law prohibits marijuana use, while some states allow it. He said states probably ought to have the option to produce and distribute medical marijuana for use within their own boundaries.

"We still haven't dealt with the federal law issue, and the fact that it's still prohibited by federal law, makes this shaky ground," he said.

The Justice Department has not enforced the law in states that have legalized medical marijuana since 2009. But, he said, Attorney General Jeff Session has cast doubt over whether that policy should continue.

Lee said marijuana is "dangerous" and could lead to other types of abuses. At the same time, he said, he understands why many people want it legalized for medicinal use.

Clarification: An earlier version did not include information that the fee on coal mining that funds Utah's mine reclamation project is collected by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.