Inspections temporarily close reality TV gold mines

TRAINING: Feds find operations were lacking in safety instruction.

August 23, 2011 

HAINES -- In what seems sure to become another dramatic episode of "Gold Rush: Alaska," two Porcupine gold mines being filmed for a reality TV show were shut down recently after failing to meet federal training requirements. They also were cited for violations of worker-safety regulations.

Inspections by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration Aug. 4 to 8 resulted in a total of 13 citations and two compliance orders against John Schnabel's Big Nugget Mine and the Jim Nail Placer Mine operated by "Dakota" Fred Hurt, according to a website maintained by the agency.

The agency designated 10 of the 15 complaints "significant and substantial," or "reasonably likely to cause an injury severe enough to cause loss of time from work." Four of eight complaints against Schnabel's operation were resolved by press time, and mining resumed early this week; one of seven complaints against Hurt was resolved and it appeared that operation had resumed there.

Following the commercial success of Discovery Channel's "Gold Rush: Alaska," which documented the trials of Oregon greenhorns mining the Jim Nail claim, filming expanded this summer to the crew at the neighboring Big Nugget claim and to Dawson, Yukon, where the Oregon crew is now mining.

The agency has not yet said if either Porcupine mine would be fined, but Schnabel's grandson Parker Schnabel, who manages the operation, said he was told a fine would be attached to each citation.

"It's ridiculous for a mine with three employees to be held to the same safety standards as a Greens Creek or Red Dog that have hundreds of employees," Parker Schnabel said.

Officials in the agency's Anchorage office referred questions to a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman, but provided background on the nature of the complaints. "Citations" typically refer to potential dangers, while "compliance orders" are attached to more serious hazards, an Anchorage official said.

The compliance orders stem from a federal requirement that miners receive at least 24 hours of safety and related procedures training, including in firefighting, self-rescue, hazard recognition, explosives and first aid.

"An untrained miner, basically anywhere he goes is potentially a safety hazard," the Anchorage official said.

Parker Schnabel confirmed this week that he and two other Big Nugget workers had 16 hours of classroom training in a State of Alaska safety course. Federal law requires an additional eight hours of on-site training.

Citations against Schnabel include violations of regulations pertaining to traffic signs warning of hazardous conditions, emergency firefighting drills, berms and guardrails, quarterly employment reports, training plans, insulation and fittings of power wires, and scaffolding.

Besides the compliance order, Hurt's citations are for violations of regulations pertaining to safe means of access, emergency firefighting drills, housekeeping, training plans and arrangements for emergency medical assistance.

Hurt did not respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment and wrote on his Facebook page earlier this summer that he was "under an information blackout concerning my activities here in Alaska."

An April 7 message left on the Facebook page said, "Hey Fred, can you spell OSHA?" Hurt replied at that time: "Actually, I've registered with MSHA as required and hopefully have enough safety in place to make them not get writers' cramps."

Parker Schnabel said he doesn't doubt that last winter's TV exposure drew the attention of regulators. According to the Alaska Miners' Association, there are about 200 small, seasonal placer mines in the state, which federal inspectors are required to inspect once a year.

"We've been operating 25 years and never had a (federal) inspection," Schnabel said.

The MSHA website on Tuesday identified Schnabel's Big Nugget operation as a sand and gravel mine abandoned in 1981.

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