The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is asking a U.S. District Court judge for an unusual court order requiring a Fairbanks gold mine to open its gates for inspectors.
On Sept. 8, attorneys representing the Department of Labor asked Judge Josh Kindred for speedy consideration of their request.
According to court documents, mine operator Sheldon Maier has blocked federal inspectors from Pedro Creek Mine — a site directly adjacent to the gold claim that led to the founding of Fairbanks — for more than a year.
Federal law requires mines to be regularly inspected for safety, though there are different rules for mines that operate seasonally.
In state filings, Maier said the mine has no employees, but in 2022, an anonymous complainant said Maier was illegally employing three miners. According to court records, after Maier blocked an inspector from visiting, the inspector returned with a second inspector aboard a helicopter, listed safety violations and claimed that three untrained miners were working at the site.
That claim is denied by Maier and his spouse, Janne. By email, Janne said she and her husband are both owner-operators and that there were no additional miners working there. They did have a friend stay at a trailer as a night watchman, she said.
“The person staying in our trailer last year was not a miner, but we believe MSHA is trying to refer to him as such,” she said by email.
Inspectors cited Maier, who refused to accept the citations and refused to allow followup inspections. During drives by the mine site, inspectors said they observed continued work.
In April, Maier appeared on a local radio show and said he had “17 egregious safety violations waiting for (himself)” and that he denied the allegations.
In letters to the mine safety agency, Maier said that the mine does not have employees and that inspectors should have presented Maier with a copy of the complaint.
“My husband and I are attempting to protect our fourth amendment right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure. We did not ask MSHA to provide us with the name of the person filing an anonymous complaint, but we did insist on seeing evidence of a complaint since the inspectors justified their inspection with a complaint. To this day MSHA has not produced evidence of any complaint filed against Alaska Goldmine,” Janne Maier said.
Minor mine safety violations are common in Alaska, which has a large number of metal mines, but federal court cases involving safety inspections are vanishingly rare.
Maier has a history of confrontations with the federal government. In 2013, Maier represented gold miners near Chicken who said they were unjustly confronted by armed agents from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA’s actions later became part of a Republican-led Congressional inquiry into possible overreach by the EPA.
The Department of Labor attorney representing the federal government in the current case did not return an email seeking comment Friday.
The case remains open in front of Kindred, who may issue an order later this month.
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.