Big Dozer, Little Dozer:

Alaskan Miners Rely on Heavy Equipment

By Dianne O’Connell

 Whether it be coal mining or gold mining, underground mining or surface mining, the equipment is about the same. There’ll be shovels and loaders, trucks, and crushers. The difference is the size, explains Bob Gerondale, Alaska Operations Manager for Construction Machinery Industrial (CMI). The company was born in August of 1985 to provide specialized equipment in varying sizes for the mining industry and others.

Surface and underground miners use a different language. Surface miners refer to “loaders,” while underground miners call them “muckers.”

“In many ways, it’s two different worlds,” Gerondale says.

Surface miners need to move more dirt. There’s usually less than a half ounce of gold per ton. They use 36-yard shovels and 200-ton trucks to get at it.

Underground equipment is, by necessity, smaller. Everything must fit through a 14-foot wide tunnel. It’s a tougher environment with different maintenance issues. But the underground miner doesn’t have to move quite as much dirt as his topside counterpart. There’s usually between six and seven ounces of gold per ton in an underground mine.

Gerondale flashes a photo on a digital screen above his desk. “It’s an underground truck,” he explains. “These are built to hit things. They work underground and continually bump the ribs, or sides, of the tunnel.”

It is zinc and lead they’re after up at the Red Dog Mine, near Kotzebue. The surface mining operation uses a bit smaller equipment that some because they don’t need to move as many tons a day to fulfill their contract. And because of climate, everything moves out during a three month period.

Gerondale knows these things. He sells the equipment and provides the product support for a long list of mining operations in the state including the Kensington underground gold mine in Juneau; the Green’s Creek silver, gold and zinc mine on Admiralty Island; the Fairbanks Gold Mine; the Red Dog and the Usibelli Coal Mines, as well as others.

In remote areas, the equipment is flown in with C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Some pieces are built in Japan, some in Garland, Texas, and some of the underground equipment in Sweden. The equipment can be expensive.

“A big shovel can cost $8 million, a truck can run $600,000,” Gerondale says. “And the cost of maintenance is high. The mining industry aims for a 95 percent availability of equipment. When the machine doesn’t work and you can’t move dirt that day, it’s called a ‘lost opportunity.’

“We don’t just sell the equipment. We work to avoid lost opportunity. We assign a product support person to each mine whose 100 percent focus is supporting that mine on-site, working out problems as they develop, providing the right inventory of parts, scheduling maintenance.”

“Our product support people don’t have to be rocket scientists, the mine already has those. Our people need to be good listeners with a degree in problem-solving and taking care of people. A mining background is helpful, too, of course.”

CMI supports the industry in other creative ways. The company sponsors students enrolled in the University of Alaska Anchorage engineering program and contributes to the Delta Mine Training Center, established to provide miner training and to encourage local hire for mineral industry jobs in Alaska.

Alaska is a tough place to find potential employees with experience in mining and with up-to-date skills. The equipment is run by computers now, so the technician, who used to be called a mechanic, must be computer savvy and able to read complicated schematics.”






It’s been a few years since placer miner Judd Edgerton took up the stereotypical pick, shovel, and gold pan. He’s a mechanic of the Old School, true, but is also one of the new breed of technician. His story may help explain how a mine works. 

Piecing together parts for his homemade wash plant was one of the first tasks Edgerton undertook when he began mining operations fifteen miles north of Chicken twenty years ago. His mine is in Alaska’s Forty-Mile Mining District.

“Most placer miners design and build their own equipment,” Edgerton explains.

“Dozens of us, probably more now, have done it for years. (175 in 2007 in Alaska). We use scrap metal from previous mining operations. That’s not junk. It’s our spare parts.”

The wash plant is key to the re-circulation system and settling ponds which protect nearby Napoleon Creek from any runoff. Edgerton and his wife Gail explain the process.

 The excavator loads the pay dirt into the top chute of the wash plant and the material is washed by the spray bars. This washing separates the gravel from the dirt with the large rocks running off a shaker screen on one end of the plant and the small material and gold dropping through the screen to the sluice box below. Gold is nineteen times heavier than water so the gold settles in the riffles of the sluice box and is recovered when the miner pulls the carpets for a “clean-up.”

“A company from Houston called me and wanted to buy the plans for my wash plant,” the miner continued. “I had to tell them the plans were all in my head. I didn’t have anything to sell them.”

In addition to his wash plant, Edgerton’s equipment inventory over the years has increased by two Caterpillar dozers and three excavators -- a Koehring, an Insley, and a Caterpillar -- all recycled equipment from other mining operations in Alaska and the Yukon.

“In a placer mine, gold is free in the gravel,” Edgerton explains. “In my case, the gold is in a layer just above bedrock. Each mine is different, but I have to move a lot of gravel to get to the gold.”

The raw gold is taken to a smelter where it is melted down and turned to pure gold. “Then you hold it until the price is right,” he says. “You are not taxed on it until you sell it.”         

Mining done, the tailing piles along with topsoil are re-landscaped to meet federal reclamation laws. Mother Nature directs the reclamation, sending up willow shoots first, which attract the moose. Other vegetation and wildlife follow.

The Edgertons bought their federal mining claims in what is now designated a Wild and Scenic Area. They are grandfathered in but have a number of regulations to meet.

“If we miss the paperwork, the mine reverts to the park,” he says.

“If we stop mining, we have to move our cabin and entire operation,” his wife Gail adds.

The Edgertons and their two sons spent five years year round at the mine. Gail used to carry her gold inventory into Palmer and Wasilla, even Anchorage, and sell the gold door-to-door to various jewelry shops, but when the spot price dropped to $300, they knew they would have to explore other marketing approaches.

That was the birth eight years ago of the Double J Mining and Jewelry Store at 991 North Hermon Road, Wasilla, where Edgerton casts and makes jewelry from his own gold.   

Where did he get his equipment?

“I built the buffer like I’ve built other equipment, only smaller.”

He didn’t build everything, though. Jewelers, like miners, need some pretty specialized stuff. Edgerton puts on his safety goggles and sits down to the controls of his $30,000 jewelry welder.




Then there is coal. Alaska has an abundance of coal, and all of it currently being mined comes from the Usibelli Coal Mine outside Healy. Emil Usibelli founded the surface-mining operation in 1943. His son Joe is currently chairman of the board of directors and grandson Joe, Jr., is president.

Emil Usibelli began his surface-mining with a small TD-40 dozer and a converted GMC logging truck. The dozer was used to push the exposed coal into the truck bed and off the truck and driver went. In 1948, Emil incorporated the Usibelli Coal Mine (UCM) under the laws of the Territory of Alaska.

During the 1950s, UCM gradually increased its share of the military’s growing coal demand and in 1954, it began its first commercial sales to utilities in the Fairbanks area. Construction of the Golden Valley Electric Association’s mine mouth coal burning power plant was completed in 1967.

Coal mining is easy; it’s getting to it that’s the hard part. Explosive blasting, truck and shovel, bull dozer, and dragline are all used to loosen both the overburden and the coal. Usibelli’s old dozer and logging truck have been replaced with a massive collection of “yellow iron” to take the coal from there (see inset).

Usibelli, like Judd Edgerton, has a favorite piece of equipment, their dragline. The Bucyrus-Erie 1300W walking dragline was named by local school children when it began operations at Poker Flats Mine. It is affectionately called “Ace-in-the-Hole.” The dragline is the largest piece of equipment at the mine and the largest land mobile machine in Alaska. Its sole purpose is to remove overburden, the sandstone and clay or "dirt" that lies on top of the coal seams. Purchased in 1977, it was brought to Alaska on 26 railroad cars and 40 trucks.

Once on site in Healy it took 11 months to reassemble and construct. The dragline consists of a 225-foot mast and a 325-foot boom. The total weight of the dragline is more than 4 million pounds or 2,100 tons of iron and steel. The buckets used on the dragline will hold 33 to 42 cubic yards of material and can scoop material 150 feet below the base and deposit it 150 feet above the base. With a 90 degree swing of the boom it takes about one minute to complete one cycle.

The Ace-in-the-Hole has operated for thirty years and its still doing its job, says Bill Brophy, vice president for customer relations. Approximately 1.8 million tons of coal were excavated in 2009 and delivered to six Interior Alaska electric power generator plants, including three military sites: Eielson Air Force Base, Clear Air Force Station and the U.S. Army’s Fort Wainwright. UCM also exports approximately 40 percent of its coal annually to Chile, South Korea and other international destinations. The Alaska Railroad heading north to Fairbanks and south to the Seward Coal Terminal, makes this all possible.

Usibelli, like placer miner Edgerton, is concerned with reclamation, now called restoration. UCM’s efforts began in 1970, seven years before it was required by government oversight. Since then, 5,500 acres have been reclaimed, with 250,000 seedlings transplanted, and 12,000 pounds of seeds hydro-planted each year. Success, like in the Forty Mile area, is measured in terms of re-emerging plant and animal life. Today, wolf, bear, moose, caribou, and migratory waterfowl are seen on the coal mine’s re-vegetated areas where heavy equipment once roamed.

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