PRICHARD, Idaho – About 25 North Idaho gold miners walked off the job recently, saying they haven’t been paid for finding the pay dirt.
Many of the miners gathered at the front gate of the Alterra Mine 40 miles northeast of Coeur d’Alene Thursday morning after hearing rumors the owner would be at the site. The men were there to demand a month’s worth of back pay. Some of the miners said they were being evicted from their homes.
“We need some answers, we got bills to pay,” Rich Babin said. “We keep getting strung along.”
The owner, Kim Dandurand, never showed up, and the men were turned away. A reporter and photographer were met at the gate by a foreman from the mine, who declined to comment and ordered the two off the property. Before driving away, the foreman closed the metal gate and shouted at a security guard standing nearby, “Nobody in there! Nobody!”
Dandurand, of Coeur d’Alene, was reached later in the day at his office. The fledgling gold mine ran into problems, he said, because faulty equipment flushed nearly 90 percent of the gold back into Prichard Creek.
“The company is moving forward and has every intention of fulfilling its obligations to employees,” Dandurand said, adding that there will be “significant layoffs” as the business is restructured. “We fully expect to stay in operation, just on a smaller scale for the next couple of weeks.”
Alterra, also known as Auntalla, spent more than $400,000 on machinery to separate the gold from the creek gravel, Dandurand said. It wasn’t until recently that operators realized the equipment was not powerful enough to process the incoming load of gravel. The mine received a permit from the Idaho Department of Lands in April, but exploration work has been under way for nearly a year.
“The land did produce the gold we expected,” Dandurand said. Unfortunately, only a fraction of the gold was recovered.
Dandurand said he plans to seek damages from the company that sold the equipment, Gold Field Inc.
The miners say they haven’t been paid since April 15, but they stayed on the job until last week hoping checks would come and more gold would be found.
“There reaches a point where you can’t work for free,” Babin said. Nearly the entire work force, minus the foremen, walked off the job. “I’m still hoping to go to work. The gold’s still there.”
Thousands of years of erosion have washed the gold out of veins in the surrounding mountains into the Prichard Creek Valley. The gold is heavier than the gravel and it has slowly settled deep into the streambed. The richest deposits are found just above the bedrock, about 25 feet below Prichard Creek, said Jim Brady, a geologist with the Idaho Department of Lands.
Rivers and creeks were the first targets for early prospectors. Many of the large, modern-day gold mines focus on finding large veins of ore in underground hardrock mines. Chemicals are used to extract minute quantities of gold from vast amounts of mined rock.
The Alterra Mine is one of a handful of specialized mining operations – called placer mines – still dredging the riverbeds for the nearly pure flecks of gold. Most placer mines are in Alaska or Canada, but a small number operate in the Northwest.
Placer mines separate gold from gravel much in the same way as a prospector worked a stream with a metal pan, just on a larger, more sophisticated scale, Brady said. The only other major placer gold mine in the area is in nearby Butte Gulch, Brady said. The mine covers about 100 acres.
Gold prices have shot up by nearly a third in the past year, thanks mostly to investor anxiety over the war in Iraq, said Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association, of Spokane. Profits have been strong and that’s not expected to change anytime soon, she said. “Most of what’s driving the price of gold is the icky things going on in the world. If people feel jittery about the U.S. dollar and its value, they tend to run to gold.”
The men who signed up to work at the Alterra Mine said everything seemed to be in perfect order – the gold was in the stream and the metal prices foretold big profits. The job also offered bonuses, profit-sharing, raises and health insurance. The hours were long and work difficult, but for every seven days at the mine, the men received seven days off. Two shifts kept the site working nearly every hour of the day. Many of the miners started work in early February.
“A lot of us quit better-paying jobs to be here,” Mike Thomas said.
“This was like a godsend,” Babin said.
Matt Lee and Terry Hersel left their homes in northeast Montana nearly three weeks ago to begin jobs at the mine. They drove more than eight hours, rented a house in Pinehurst and learned everything they could about pulling gold from the North Idaho landscape. So far, they have not been paid.
“Give me a dollar and I’ll be happy,” Lee said, standing outside the Prichard Tavern Thursday morning with a group of miners. Lee and Hersel now face eviction from the home they are renting. Lee is also behind on his child support payments.
“I’m not going to go to jail over these pricks,” he said.
The miners said they plan to file complaints against Dandurand with the Idaho Department of Labor to be paid for their last month’s work. The men said their anger is fueled by a lack of answers and an abundance of empty promises.
“The owner, the bosses, they knew nothing about gold,” Babin said. “These are all novices.”
When Dandurand was told some of the miners blamed the mine’s hard times on faulty equipment, he replied, “That’s probably the most honest thing you heard from any of them.”
Dandurand said when the mine eventually returns to full operation, “We’ll look closely at who we’re going to bring back on.”
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