Miners seek compromise with Coast Guard
The Nome Port Commission has decided not to go after a boundary change that would exempt gold dredges from newly enforced U. S Coast Guard regulations. Instead, the City plans to seek a review for a special ruling for a hybrid regulation for what was required on those vessels, specific to the unique fleet at Nome.
Three mining companies’ vessels would fall under requirements that vessels over 79 feet long must have an inspection for a load line certificate. Load line? That line shows how much freeboard the vessel must have above the water’s surface. The line prevents overloading of vessels for sake of safety.
If a dredge requires the use of a towing vessel to safely maneuver, towing vessels of 26 feet or more will be required to hold a Certificate of Inspection starting in 2018, and also need to be operated by a credentialed master mariner. Three operators of the large gold recovery vessels say modifications to meet the Coast Guard regulations would cost tens of thousands of dollars.
However, City officials have learned that petitioning Congress through the federal delegation would burn up political capital needed for other projects, likely without achieving a boundary line change. Boundary line changes come through an act of Congress.
However, the USCG District 17 may have more leeway to treat miners as a special fleet, as long as they follow the Congress broad directive to “make it safe,” Joy Baker, port director, said. “One could ask the Coast Guard to give the mining fleet an extensive look at where they operate and provide an alternative compliance that would be more appropriate,” she said.
The load-line and certificate requirements are not new. The laws have been on the books but were not immediately enforced. “There are not a lot of areas that have gold dredges, it is a new thing,” U.S. Coast Guard Commander Christopher Coutu offered.
Heartache came with a notice from USCG Capt. S. C. MacKenzie, officer in charge of marine inspection for Western Alaska that contained the following: “Starting in the 2018 season, Sector Anchorage’s enforcement posture will deviate from previous seasons which allowed dredges leeway and time to come into compliance with federal regulations.”
The Nome Port Commission and the operators of the large vessels have met with Coast Guard personnel from USCG District 17.
“It is reasonable to expect all vessels of any size operating offshore Nome to have basic safety requirements,” Andrew Lee, an operator of the Tagiuk Provider said. Those basic items would be fire extinguishers, flotation devices such as personal flotation devices, rings, lifeboats and communication equipment and signage. “However, the requirements designed for ocean voyages, carrying cargo and passengers, are not reasonable and should not be applied to these near-shore, near-port work platforms,” he said. “Overly burdensome regulations drive up the cost of projects, making them less economically viable and thus less likely to be undertaken.”
There are currently three large dredges under construction: the Tuvi, the Myrtle Irene, and the Tagiyuk Provider, all having benefit for the Nome economy, Lee said, adding that the Tuvi and Myrtle Irene would never meet the load-line requirement.
David Young of the Myrtle Irene and Shawn Pomrenke of the Tuvi joined Lee in urging the Commission and the Nome Common Council to pass a resolution petitioning the U.S. Coast Guard to grant a waiver of the load-line and Certificate of Inspection requirements for the three vessels and any others that the Commission deems to meet a sufficient level of safety.
Nome’s boundary line is at water’s edge at mean high tide. The operators of the three vessels pointed out that nationwide there are 35 exemptions that set the boundary line as far as 12 miles from shore and 2,500 miles of U.S. coastlines that have special adjustments. A boundary line determines where the ocean rules start to apply. Miners said it was unfair that Cook Inlet had a broad boundary line when Norton Sound water was warmer without silt, that a different standard was being applied to Norton Sound.
Miners say that mining vessels and the local mining industry each provide new or preserved good paying jobs. Moorage and storage fees paid to the Port of Nome improve the economy. Large port users justify expansion and upgrade of the Port of Nome.
Besides, said Lee, without a boundary line exemption, Nome was at a significant disadvantage to Kotzebue or selection of a deep-water port location, as Kotzebue already had their surrounding waters exempted. “Safety for me is the Number One thing, Lucas Stotts, harbor master said. “When I hear a reasonable increase of risk, I don’t like it.”
Moving the boundary of the Nome waters further out to loosen regulations and put dredges in open water did not seem safe to Port Commissioner Charlie Lean. “I have participated in rescues,” he said. “The City of Nome has no vessel suitable to rescue in rough water.”
“We need to write our own regulations, that’s what we need to do,” Shawn Pomrenke said. “Without leeway we will have to shut down. We watch over each other, it’s a small community.”
The USCG personnel are required to enforce the boundary line, they said.
“We have to work together for some kind of compliance,” Commander Justin Jacobs said. “Are we going to work with the mariners on regulations? Yes.” Making an attempt to get into compliance would count, he added. “We will not have people not working this summer, as long as you are not stonewalling us,” he said.
“We have to work toward compliance with a timeline for a rural area, “ Councilman Mark Johnson said. “We can’t run down to Seattle to gather what we need. We have logistical challenges.”