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Coast Guard, partners reach out to Nome gold dredgers

Posted by: PA1 Sara Francis
Story by Caitlin Goettler

There’s gold to be found in Nome, as made evident by the nearly 70 gold dredgers in attendance at a public meeting on dredging safety, which was hosted by the Coast Guard in conjunction with its federal, state and local partners from May 31 to June 5.

NOME, Alaska – Dredging vessels sit in Nome Harbor June 3, 2012. As a direct result of outreach efforts by the Coast Guard, many of the dredging vessels have acquired proper safety equipment since the Coast Guard’s first visit in 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. William Albright.
The Coast Guard, along with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, City of Nome, Nome Volunteer Fire Department and National Weather Service spoke with local dredgers to make sure they are equipped with all of the tools and resources necessary to safely dredge for gold this season.

David Borg, a recreational boating safety analyst for District 17, Lt. William Albright, chief of Sector Anchorage’s investigations department, and Petty Officer Francis Schiano, a marine safety technician from Sector Anchorage’s incident management team, represented the Coast Guard at the meeting.

“Our main focus was vessel safety and ensuring the vessels engaging in the dredging activities were properly outfitted with federal requirements for safety equipment,” Borg said.

The town of about 4,000 residents has recently seen an influx of dredgers as gold strikes become more widely known across the country, largely due to the Discovery Channel’s television show Bering Sea Gold. The increase of people and activity present several safety challenges.

“I think the show put out to a lot of people in the Lower 48 that there is definitely gold to be found,” said Borg. “We’re kind of looking at this as being a second gold rush.”

At the meeting, the local police department expressed concerns about the town’s safety, and the harbormaster had concerns about harbor safety, in addition to concerns about the safety of the dredgers themselves, Borg said.

Gold dredging in Nome first caught the attention of the Coast Guard in 2011, when a recreational dredger passed away in an underwater dredging accident. Borg and Albright were sent to Nome to investigate the incident and found that many of the dredging vessels were unsafe.

“We noticed that there was a large population of these vessels and they hadn’t been looked at in the past,” Borg said. “There were a lot of vessels that were haphazardly put together.”

This prompted Borg and Albright to develop an outreach program to teach dredgers about boating safety. Albright returned to Nome in the winter to distribute information about safety gear so dredgers would be able to obtain the proper gear in time for the summer season.

“We had gotten a lot of calls about safety gear, so we came up with some pamphlets and flyers to hand out to people,” Albright said. “We also provided local vendors with a list of gear.”

This outreach proved to be effective, as many of the vessels were better built, had been registered with the state and had fire extinguishers and navigation lights on board when Borg and Albright returned with Schiano for the public meeting.

“They had a lot of the required safety equipment, which we were really happy to see with very little interdiction from us,” Borg said. “They just knew we were coming, and they want to do the right thing.”

This increase in general knowledge among the local population allowed the outreach team to focus on answering more specific questions and discuss other issues such as pollution.

“With the purpose-built crafts that we’re looking at, a lot of them don’t take the fuels and oils and so forth into consideration when they’re building the boats,” Borg said, “So that was a big thing just to make sure they understood what their responsibilities were in the event that they released anything into the water.”

The dredgers were very responsive and engaged in pollution issues, as they had witnessed the vessel Rustler leaking diesel fuel into the waters of the Nome Harbor.

“This provided a concrete example of what could happen and why these regulations are important,” Albright said. “They were able to see what we do.”

Borg, Albright and Schiano are making plans to return to Nome in late July or August, with the goal of developing a program to provide safety checks on dredging vessels.

For now, they wish the dredgers a safe and successful season.