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Molding miners.

A school offering hands-on mining education benefits the mining industry, displaced workers and Southeast communities.

The smoke from the last blast has just about cleared from the Maggie Kathleen, the tunnel at the Institute of Mining Technology's training site on Mount Roberts near Juneau. University of Alaska Southeast instructor Bob Greig, his assistant Bob Koerperich and 20 mining students are standing outside the tunnel, waiting. There's not much they can do until the tunnel is completely ventilated. Then they'll head into the rock's dark recesses to inspect their handiwork.

Greig takes a quick look inside and announces, "From what I can see, it's still a little cloudy, but it doesn't look like a bad shot. I'm going to walk back one more time and if it's still good, I'll give you a signal."

The 54-year-old mining veteran disappears for a minute, then shouts "OK!" to the crowd. Wearing hard hats with miners' lamps, protective goggles and steel-toed boots, the students walk the tunnel's 320-foot length to the drift they blasted from the right-hand side.

The first thing a miner wants to do upon entering a tunnel after a blast is check overhead for loose rock, Greig warns. Then he should check the muck pile, the chunks of fallen rock, for any sign of misfired explosives.

After that, the "barring down" can begin. Greig hands two students long metal bars used to prod suspicious-looking rock that may be tenuously clinging to the tunnel ceiling. One student takes the bar and jams it up against the rock with gusto. A bit too much gusto, Greig decides. "Hey! You ain't killing snakes! Just listen to it," the instructor shouts.

The other student manning the bar, meanwhile, is too timid. "You're going to have to put some meat into it, don't just peck around," Greig explains. He takes the bar into his own hands for a quick demonstration. "Listen to it," he says, referring to the sound the bar makes against the rock. "That ain't going nowhere, is it?"

He keeps poking. Suddenly, the bar makes a hollow clanging noise. "But that is," he says, as several chunks come falling down. "And that is." He keeps going, talking while he works. "You work your way forward. ... Learn to read your rock, look for cracks, look for what doesn't look right." Greig passes the bar to another student, who goes after the job with renewed interest.

Learning by doing is what this program -- perhaps the only vocational mine training program in the nation -- is all about, Greig says. Other mining schools are more academically focused on engineering and geology.

If students hold back, they won't make it. About 25 percent, depending on the class, don't. And there are no job guarantees, although officials from the Greens Creek silver mine on nearby Admiralty Island say 60 to 70 percent of its workers come from the mine training school.

Echo Bay Alaska Inc. also says it will pay graduates higher wages than those it hires from elsewhere, assuming the Canadian-based company wins approval for reopening the Alaska-Juneau mine near downtown Juneau. Echo Bay also is a partner in the Kensington gold mine, 45 miles north of Juneau.

The six-week mine training course is rigorous. It includes sessions in history, geology, drilling and blasting, equipment, safety and other subjects. Local experts, including Juneau-based state geologist Al Clough and Juneau mine historian David Stone, give presentations to class members. Also included in the course are 36 hours of Mine Safety and Health Administration by (MSHA) Greig, a certified MSHA instructor.

The school was founded in 1988 through a joint effort of Greens Creek, the university and several state agencies. It has used the Maggie Kathleen, up the hill off the A-J access road near Juneau at the 470-foot elevation, as its underground classroom for the last two years.

The Maggie Kathleen was part of the old Alaska-Gastineau mine's mill system. Greig dubbed it the Maggie Kathleen in honor of his dog Maggie and Kathy Greig -- the institute's administrator-counselor and Bob Greig's wife.

Before the institute started using the tunnel for hands-on work, students took a tour of the old A-J workings and practiced drilling into a concrete abutment. The rest of the work was typical classroom fare behind a desk.

Now, students spend only three weeks indoors. The institute holds the course four times a year.

The program provides an excellent start for any would-be miner, says student Corey Hannon, formerly of Haines and now of Juneau. Hannon is a success story. He interviewed for a position at Greens Creek on the day before the course's May 15 graduation date -- and got the job.

Greens Creek general manager Cliff Davis says his company supports the institute because of its reputation of providing students with "a very good preliminary introduction to the industry."

He adds, "The fact that we still support it and still recruit from there shows that we are happy with the training provided. I think it does a useful service in taking people and preparing them for employment in what is hopefully a growth industry."

Hannon was 1 of 15 men from Haines who traveled to Juneau for a session last spring. Like 130 other people, Hannon used to work at the Chilkoot Lumber Co. Inc. sawmill in Haines, which had supported a $4.5 million annual payroll in that city. The mill closed more than a year ago, throwing the Haines economy into turmoil and causing unemployment to skyrocket to 20 percent.

Hannon worked as a mechanic for a while, but saw a brighter opportunity in mining. Other class participants tell a similar story.

Larry Totland of Juneau has worked for West Coast Stevedoring, a subsidiary of Klukwan Inc., but says opportunities with that company have dwindled. "The longshoring job was tapering down and before that I logged for 25 years, and that industry is in the same boat," Totland says. "Mining is like the only thing on the upswing, so I'd like to be prepared."

Zip Garcia of Haines says he has done numerous odd jobs to make ends meet ever since the Haines lumber mill closed. "When this showed up, everybody jumped on it," he notes.

The institute has tried to attract Haines residents ever since former Haines city administrator Walt Wilcox Sr. placed newspaper ads announcing the community's interest in serving as home base for Kensington workers. Since then, representatives from the Alaska Department of Labor's Job Service and the state Department of Community and Regional Affairs have worked together with UAS officials to ensure qualified residents apply for the training. The state even helped secure financial assistance for students unable to pay the $295 course fee, food or housing costs.

Greig says the institute is a vast improvement from the old days. "You were hired straight off the street," he notes. "You were put with an old-time miner, who may or may tell you anything, and it was pretty much up to you if you learned anything."
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Title Annotation:Special Section: Slow Bore: A Tale of Obstacle Courses, Bright Prospects & High Hopes; mining education at University of Alaska Southeast's Institute of Mining Technology
Author:Ripley, Kate
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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