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Prospective miners build skills

16 in university class prepare for Kensington mine opening next year

Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mining built Juneau, and with the Kensington mine's imminent opening, mining will play a bigger role in the future as well.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Getting ready for Kensington to open late in 2010, 16 prospective miners have begun a class through University of Alaska Southeast that could lead to dependable year-round jobs. The five-week class turns those who can handle the rigors of underground mining into people who can go to work at Kensington or Greens Creek Mine, which has been open on and off since the late 1980s and is the only currently active mine in the Juneau area.

Instructor Sam Reves with the Mining and Petroleum Training Service described it as "learning to speak miner" to the 14 men and two women starting class at the Juneau training center Monday.

Among the terminology they'll need to know to work as miners, or just to communicate with miners, are what to call the walls, ceiling and floor of a mine.

It's like being swallowed by a whale, Reves said, because the walls are called "ribs," the roof overhead is the "back," though the floor is still a floor.

Among those hoping to get mining jobs are former loggers, fishermen and equipment operators.

"It's year-round, and it's dependable," said Richard Berg, who has been working as an equipment operator in the years since he graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School.

That dependability plus benefits, is what the father of six needs.

Cliff Walker has been working as a logger, sometimes at the Greens Creek Mine site on northern Admiralty Island, where he may end up working again as a miner.

"The timber industry is pretty well at the end," he said.

Also seeking more dependability is fisherman Gary Piper.

"Fishing is a bit more hit and miss," Piper said. Also, he said, you can buy an Individual Fishing Quota and then not be able to fish it because of allocation decisions or poor returns.

"You can spend $100,000 for an IFQ, and then they can take it away from you," he said.

The jobs those prospective miners hope to get are part of a rebirth of the mining industry on which Juneau was founded, they were told by local mining historian David Stone. Before the capital was here, mining was the city's main industry.

In Stone's "mining history 101" talk, he said he was trying to show them how significant mining had once been in Juneau, and what a leader in innovation that Juneau's mining operations had been.

The first mines in Juneau had been placer mines, but they soon ran out of surface gold. It was underground mines, sometimes drilling thousands of feet underground, on which the Juneau mining industry was built.

"It would be the hard rock gold that would really make Juneau famous, and also bring the capital," Stone said.

Douglas was at one time the largest city in Alaska, and the Treadwell Mine on Douglas Island was so important that its cave-in and flood that instantly ended its production was front page news in the New York Times, Stone said.

"The world's largest gold mine went poof," he said.

Later, it was surpassed in size by mines across the channel in Juneau, including the Alaska-Juneau Mine, which operated until World War II.

The introductory mining class also focuses on mining safety. The goal, Reves said, is to produce employees able to go to work immediately, safely and usefully in an underground mine.

The class is funded by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development through a federal grant, said department staffer Mary Rodman-Lopez.

Stone is deputy commissioner of the department, as well as a member of the Juneau Assembly.

Later class sessions will qualify students for a Mining Safety and Health Administration permit showing safety training for working underground, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms permits for working with explosives, and others, she said.

Students had to pass a drug test, too, just to be enrolled, Rodman-Lopez said. No one wants to spend money training people who can't be hired.

"If they use drugs, they cannot work in the mining industry," she said.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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