Every morning and every evening of every day, about 100 people head to a dock near the Auke Bay ferry terminal for one of the most unusual commutes in Southeast Alaska.
Day shift workers begin at the Greens Creek Mine early. With nearly empty streets, the miners, geologists, heavy equipment operators and office workers provide Juneau's first mini-rush hour as they head out to catch their 5 a.m. ride to work.
Greens Creek, about 20 miles southwest of downtown Juneau, requires a 35-minute catamaran ferry ride to Admiralty Island, then an eight-mile ride to Hawk Inlet on the west side of the island, and another six miles to the mine site. While most head up to the mine's 920 site, named for its elevation, others fan out around the mine's Hawk Inlet buildings to start their day.
Greens Creek at a glance
Ownership: Kennecott Minerals Co. based in Salt Lake City, Utah, 70 percent; Hecla Mining Co., based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, 30 percent.
Employees: 270, 120 mining and underground support, 60 in the mill, 60 surface support, 30 administrative. About one-third of non-administrative employees work per shift.
Annual payroll: $26 million.
Revenue: 40 percent silver (contained in the lead concentrate), 40 percent zinc, 15 percent gold, 5 percent lead.
Year 2000 production figures: 616,000 tons of ore processed; 200,000 tons of zinc, lead and bulk concentrate; and 65,000 ounces of gold.
The entrance to the mine - along with administrative, mill and maintenance buildings - are at the 920 site, which doesn't see direct sunlight from October through February, said Bill Oelklaus, environmental manager for the mine.
Through the entrance of the mine and down though a matrix of winding tunnels lies the ultimate target of the several hundred people who work for Greens Creek - ore rich in silver, zinc, lead and gold. The mine's ore is a complex mix of the four metals along with trace amounts of other minerals.
"It's the most screwed up ore body you could imagine" said Keith Marshall, mine manager.
While bland-looking, the rock excites geologist Nicki Hindal. She is one member of a team - and one of the very few women - working underground to get the ore to the surface.
As one of several geologists, Hindal's job is to determine where the ore veins go and show the rest of the team where to drill and blast. Hindal has been working underground for three and a half years, she said.
"After we show them where to drill, a mucker goes in and gets it," she said, mucker being the term for someone who loads the blasted ore into trucks for the trip topside.
Hindal points out folding and wave-like compressions that formed over millions of years in the tortured rock. Ore is distinguishable from waste rock by a slight difference in color and lack of light-dark marbling.
"It's an incredible place to do geology," said geologist Mike Satre.
But it's no place for the claustrophobic. Despite the high 15-foot ceilings, there is an awareness in the back of the mind that you're hundreds of feet underground, and in those hundreds of feet are thousands of tons of rock weighing down on the psyche.
Then there's the dark. Headlamps, and truck and tractor headlights are swallowed by it. Just beyond the reach of lights and lamps is a dark blacker than anything on the planet's surface.
Some people can't handle it, but the "diggers," or underground workers, don't even notice.
"Those guys are a different breed," said metallurgical engineer Bob Haecker. Haecker, who works at the mill, said he has been underground a few times and didn't like it much.
Down through miles of roads and more than 800 feet below the main entrance to the mine, it's 10 a.m. and driller Gregg Smith is painting an ore face with crosses marking the location of drill holes. Smith is working an ore vein at the 75-foot (above sea) level of the mine, several hundred feet above the lowest parts of the mine.
Smith, who has worked at the mine since construction began in 1986, wields a drilling machine that looks like something out of a science-fiction movie. He drills 4-foot deep parallel holes in a diamond pattern around a center hole.
After a driller is done, powder man Greg Pegues steps in and fills some of the holes with explosives.
"It looks like strawberry yogurt," he said. "Same consistency too."
The explosive is very safe until a blasting cap is added, Pegues said. Some holes are left empty to allow the rock some place to expand when the explosives are set off milliseconds apart, he said.
He said handling explosives was not something he studied at school, but learned on the job as one of numerous underground duties within a team. After learning the different underground jobs, a miner can work in one of the positions he or she prefers.
"It's learn as you go," Pegues said. After retreating a safe distance around several tunnel twists, Pegues will blast a 15-by-15-foot ore face about 12 feet deep.
After the muckers load the blasted rock onto ore trucks, Erik Sommers comes in and secures the area with a bolting machine. Sommers drill holes, then pins up metal sheeting that looks a little like flattened guard rails.
The evidence of Sommers and other bolters' work is evident everywhere in the mine. Every couple of feet is a metal sheet pinned deep into the rock to keep walls and ceilings from collapsing.
Sommers, underground at the mine for two and a half years, has worked his way up to one of the top below-ground positions. As a tech five, he learned how to run each of the roughly half-dozen large pieces of machinery used underground, he said.
New miners usually work the ore trucks to learn the mine and operations, Sommers said. Then they rotate around and learn other technical jobs underground. Like other members of the 20-person team, once Sommers is done bolting one heading, he moves to another and starts working there.
"Being bored out here is no place to be," Pegues said.
Nearly all the diggers have short hair, making it easier to deal with the incessant dust and dirt underground. Water trucks circle the numerous underground roads wetting walls and road surfaces to try and keep the dust down. Even with those efforts, workers still exit the mine with raccoon eyes, safety glasses diverting dust for the effect.
Winter or summer doesn't matter much for the diggers; underground it's always the same temperature.
During the winter, diggers go underground when it's dark, then work, eat lunch and emerge in the dark, only seeing daylight during their days off. The night shift has it slightly better, seeing sunlight on the days they work, depending on the weather and their sleep schedule.
Diggers have a de facto uniform of Carhartt bib coveralls, and jackets that are shed the deeper underground they go. Increasing humidity and air temperature indicate the end of a tunnel where people are working.
Up near the top, just a few hundred yards inside the mine, sits what could be the largest underground garage in Southeast Alaska where ore trucks, tractors and other machinery are repaired. The shop looks like most repair garages with spare parts and big tool chests lining the workspace. But, like the rest of the underground operations, the walls and ceilings are grayish with large pieces of steel bolted into them.
Once up at the surface, the ore is dumped into a holding area where it is mixed to distribute high- and low-grade ore bodies. The mill operates more efficiently when the ore is a consistent grade, mine manager Marshall said.
The ore is then run through a couple of rock crushers that pulverize it down to a fine powder and run through a number of automated processes to end up with gold bars and zinc, lead and bulk concentrates. The silver, which accounts for about 40 percent of the mine's income, is contained within the lead concentrate. Zinc accounts for another 40 percent of the mine's income, gold 15 percent and lead 5 percent, Marshall said.
It's up to another team of workers to keep the mill complex going. There are numerous "circuits" within the mill and people rotate to cover the different jobs. The mill shuts down one day a month for maintenance to take care of the "critical path," or anything that might shut down the line.
"A lot of different people are a team of small jobs to keep material going," engineer Haecker said.
Most of the job is preventative maintenance and monitoring, making sure the grinders and pumps and other equipment aren't overpowered by the amount of ore or concentrate, said Eric Coutlee, who works in mill operations.
Coutlee has worked several jobs in the mill, which is highly automated. Monitors track the efficiency of different machinery in the mill.
"It's like a video game," said Coutlee, 23, one of the younger miners.
Jody Karasch, a mill worker for five years, considers the floatation cells the most interesting part of the operation. The flotation cells separate zinc, lead and other minerals from the crushed ore tailings. Monitoring them is "like a game of chess," he said. "Those are the money makers."
Whenever a pump breaks down, it results in ore or concentrate spilling and hours of hosing down to clean up the mess, Coutlee said.
From the mill, concentrate is shipped down the hill to a storage shed in Hawk Inlet. There, the three different concentrates will sit, looking like piles of dirt with slightly varying color, until an ore ship comes to pick up a load.
Half of the tailings, or leftover ore after making concentrate, are trucked back into the mine as backfill, mine manager Marshall said.
"We call it return to sender," he said.
The rest of the tailings end up at two nearby sites. The crushed-rock tailings are ground almost as fine as flour, said environmental manager Bill Oelklaus. Tailings are compacted with giant rollers so they become nearly as hard as concrete, he said.
Those sites have come under state scrutiny recently over concerns about potential damage to the salmon-supporting Greens Creek, which flows just outside the entrance to the mine. The state required the mine to cap the tailings with rock and clay layers to keep out water and air that can interact with the metals and form acid, and possibly contaminate the stream. The mining company also will monitor the creek to check for contamination.
The mining and handling of rock, ore, tailings and concentrate are just a few aspects of the mine. There are many other support personnel on the surface to keep the buildings, trucks and roads functional and free of snow. More support personnel maintain the mine complex, which is like a self-contained city that runs 24-7, with its sewer, water, electrical generators, heating and telephone systems.
By late afternoon, the day-shift miners are heading topside after 10 hours in the hole. After showering off the day's grime, miners head onto buses joining those workers who don't venture underground. The buses lumber down the valley to Hawk Inlet, then out along a winding road to the ferry dock the other side of the island.
Out on the dock, people wait in the blustery winter weather for the incoming boat to disgorge the night crew, which who will take their places on the surface and underground. Once on board the ferry, some people settle into cliques, some head to the ferry's darkened upstairs area to catch an afternoon nap. Others chat, read or watch a movie - watched over several trips - on one of the televisions in the main cabin.
Docking in Auke Bay at 6:30 p.m., some people dash off the boat and another mini-rush hour ensues.
Mike Hinman can be reached at email@example.com.
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