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Diver’s death prompts Coast Guard to regulate Nome gold dredges

Oct 2, 2015 04:05 PM
Gold dredge AuMerican operating in Norton Sound in 2013. The U.S. Coast Guard has begun safety inspections of the unique Nome vessels.

Photo by Ken Hughes

Gold dredge AuMerican operating in Norton Sound in 2013. The U.S. Coast Guard has begun safety inspections of the unique Nome vessels.

The U.S. Coast Guard now classifies gold dredges operating off Nome, Alaska, as commercial vessels, meaning they must meet federal regulations that come with the designation. Previously, all but the largest dredges were treated as recreational crafts.

Under the new standards that took effect June 1, smaller gold dredges classified as uninspected vessels must carry life jackets, fire extinguishing equipment, flares, lights and other safety gear applicable to the vessel class.

For larger dredges of 200 gross tons or more, a master and chief engineer holding a Coast Guard merchant mariner credential will be required in addition to carrying the standard safety equipment. Dredges at least 79 feet long built since 1986 must maintain a valid load-line certification.

The Coast Guard-mandated dockside inspections began in the summer for the smaller class of vessels to make sure safety equipment and other standards are followed. The credentialing and load-line standards for larger vessels take effect next year.

“The specific commercial standards that apply to each vessel will depend on the vessel’s length, tonnage, age, area of operation and means of propulsion,” the Coast Guard said in a marine safety information bulletin released earlier this year.

“Small suction dredgers will see little difference from years past in the safety equipment standards they must adhere to, while larger excavator dredges may face compliance challenges related to load-line, mariner credentialing and inspection requirements,” the bulletin said.

Not everyone is happy about the new vessel standards, which come during a period of slumping gold prices and consolidation among some large dredge companies. Kenny Hughes, chairman of the Alaska Miners Association in Nome, said the Coast Guard and state and local authorities “seem hell-bent on shutting down the industry.”

“It’s gone from a fun, recreational little adventure to an over-regulated pile of crap that is no fun for anybody,” said Hughes, who has worked on gold dredges for several seasons and once leased a dredge. “It’s not like they are increasing any real level of safety by doing it this way, or by having us do these stupid regulations.”

People have searched for gold in Alaska for generations. But the number of gold dredges operating off Nome has surged in recent years, driven in part by a prominent reality show on the Discovery Channel and gold prices that rose steadily for years before peaking in 2011 at $1,921 per ounce. This summer, the commodity price fell below $1,100.

Gold dredge Kentucky Goldenrod.

Photo by Ken Hughes

This year more than 100 gold dredges have operated off Nome, according to Port of Nome Harbormaster Lucas Stotts. Some are homemade crafts sitting atop inflatable pontoons, while others with metal pontoons have varying degrees of sophistication. Most of the smaller operations typically have divers who swim along the ocean floor vacuuming up stones in search of ore. Larger vessels have heavy sorting and sifting equipment situated atop midsized barges.

Lt. Commander Jason Boyle, a marine safety inspector from Coast Guard District 17 in Juneau, said the agency began exploring new regulations for gold dredges following the 2011 death of a diver working in Nome.

“The Coast Guard investigated the death as a marine casualty and found there were a significant number of gold dredges operating in Nome that appeared to be unregulated and outside of the regulations,” Boyle said in an interview.

The Coast Guard spent three years investigating what regulations might apply and trying to develop an inspection regime before issuing the new standards. The Coast Guard has performed voluntary vessel examinations over the past three years to check for safe practices and equipment.

“The vast majority of the smaller guys are right there in compliance based on the outreach efforts in the past,” Boyle said. “This is the fourth year we have been working with the fleet, so we have a really good rapport with them.”

For larger vessels that now must meet new certifications for crewing and load lines, the agency added a two-year grace period to allow operators to work through the process, he said.
The Coast Guard’s commercial designation on the gold dredges is “stirring the pot lately” among operators, Stotts said. Some are upset with the changes, while others are glad to see greater emphasis on safety.

“For the most part now that we are partway into the season, as harbormaster, I have been hearing fairly good things about it,” he said of the Coast Guard rules. “Most people are pretty happy about the increased enforcement because there are a few operators that give the rest a bad name, and the rest like those folks singled out to prevent problems.”

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