A journey into the mine

Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008

Dawn over Berners Bay; it is a fine day. The Chilkat Mountains are pink beyond the great white crag of Lion's Head. Mountains and water so dominate the landscape it would be easy to overlook the Kensington Mine. It seems a pity to abandon such a rare fine day, but I'm heading into the portal of the mine.

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As soon as we drive in we are engulfed in black. I am with Tom Henderson, the vice president general manager of Coeur Alaska, which owns the mine about 45 miles northwest of downtown Juneau.

Henderson has spent much of his life underground. He is soft-spoken and even-tempered.

"I love it down here," he says.

When the mine's at full capacity, Kensington workers will drill, blast and sift through 1,250 tons of rock a day. Coeur expects, from each ton, about 0.3 ounces of gold - about 400 ounces a day.

But for now, the mine is waiting. Most of the construction is done. Coeur needs new permits for a new tailings plan, and the real beginning is perhaps six to 18 months out. The camp staff has shrunk from more than 300 to about 67 people now.

For years, the mine has sparked intense controversy over its environmental plan. But today is not about politics - I'm just here to step in and take a layman's look into these tunnels.

Henderson has worked in mines with rats before, but not here. It has a wholesome smell with clean, sharp air. Kensington is an unusual mine because fresh air comes in from two sides. I imagine it smells different during blasting.

Today no one is blasting. It is quiet except for the dripping of water through the mountain.

At first the walls, blasted out to be 15-by-15 feet, look like bare crags of rock. They're covered all over with metal screen, bolted into the wall. The bolts are driven in 12 feet or more by a machine called a rock bolter. One huge arm drills the hole, another puts the screen on the ceiling, a third bolts it on. The operator is at least 12 feet behind the action, just as in the actual drilling and blasting.

Decades ago, miners contacted the business end more directly. Now their equipment is so indirect and automated that they don't even have stick shifts - more like joysticks. The sound-insulated cabs have CD players in them.

Decades ago, a place turning over this much ore would employ perhaps 800 people, Henderson speculates. At the height of production, in a year or two, he expects about 300 workers. The smaller work force is because the process has been streamlined and automated. That is also, he says, what makes it safer.

But certain things do stay the same: the low rumble and boom and whoosh of explosions, which miners seem to love.

And the essential nature of the extractive business, turning worthless (as Henderson says) rock into gold.

"We're creating something," Henderson says. "It's really a beautiful thing."

In the belly of the mine they have blown out a tall room that will be a crane galley. Today it is all rock, more or less, a bare cave with heavy equipment scattered about in the darkness and a few piles and pools of gravel. Eventually the chunky walls will be painted white - here will be an underground warehouse, there a tool shop. Henderson spreads out his arms to show me, and we imagine it brightly lit, a very different place.


I jump down from the truck into a clear pool that instantly clouds with fine gray silt. The fine gray silt will cover my lower half by the time I leave. Later we'll track it all in and cover the lower half of any room we're in. Henderson says to keep an eye on the housekeeping for an indicator of overall morale at a mine. He seems obsessed with creating good mine culture. The Kensington facilities are spotless.

The walls are festooned with signs that say things like "The Path to Zero Begins with You!" That is, zero accidents. On the day I have visited, they're around Day 260 without a reportable accident. Henderson tells me several times, "This is a very safe industry."

We were, of course, given a safety briefing. The safety trainer, Steve Roose, is a barrel-chested man in faded overalls. He has a gravel voice and salt-and-pepper buzz cut, slate gray-blue eyes and a clipboard with a sticker that says "I (heart) EXPLOSIVES."

"I use safety protection," he says seriously, when I ask him how much he loves explosives. He is passionate about proper protective equipment and it shows.

Then his eyes glint and he chuckles.

"But I do love to hear it," he says.

Rock is blasted about the same way it's been done for the last several decades. The explosives come in long yellow sausages. Henderson picks up one (still made by Dyno Nobel, after Nobel who invented dynamite) and lets me poke and squeeze it.

"You could jump up and down on these all day and nothing would happen," he says.

You drill a series of holes into the rock, then stick a yellow plastic sausage filled with explosives, and truss them all with explosive cord. Fifty feet out you tie a blasting cap to the end of that cord. Detonation is remote-controlled these days. "WhooOOOM," goes the blast. The air pressure changes briefly. It is a fine and beautiful thing, I am told.

If it failed to blow they would wait an hour, tie it up again and start over. Henderson says he'd even let his daughter do it.


Outside we exit and I sneeze several times.

"Ah, you're allergic to the sunshine," Henderson says. Mine people are a different breed, it seems. He says Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn't come up much. Why? Most people here are already Southeast Alaskans, he speculated - and they did choose to work in a mine.

Henderson adds that he likes working here because the people are hardy. They never see weather as an excuse not to do something, he says. Tomorrow he expects a storm, he tells the workers. Is that so, they respond evenly.

Function rules in this mostly male camp. The only nod to decor I see is a vase of pink plastic flowers in the women's bathroom. A feminine touch next to the soaps - your choice of Dial or Lava.

"WELCOME CAMPERS," says a sign on the bathroom door. Please be patient, the sign says, while the amenities of home are brought in. It politely suggests that moving the television in one's bedroom will not improve the reception.

The pleasures at the mine include whale-watching on Lynn Canal and, when a man named Mike is on duty, an excellent pastry chef.

Outside, we meet several of the campers. Naomi Hammond is mine coordinator. She has a background in public policy but really, Henderson says, she's a systems person, a problem solver. Over her reddish hair she wears a gold hard hat with red homemade flames stuck on. A colleague labeled it Nitro Naomi, as that's what they call her.

"It's like having 70-odd brothers here," she says. "They can dish it out."

"She can dish it out, too," Henderson tells me.

"I had to learn," she says, grinning.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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