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Trail Conditions “Good” In Area Where Bulldozer Sank

by KTNA Staff ~ May 15th, 2013

On May 10th, an 18-ton Caterpillar D6 bulldozer broke through the ice and sank while traveling with a convoy of similar vehicles on the way to Stephan (step-PAN) Lake.  The operator, Donald Kiehl, 72, of North Pole, was killed when the heavy equipment sank.  In the wake of the incident, questions have arisen regarding the process that led the cat-train to travel on the tundra and lakes in May.  KTNA’s Phillip Manning spoke with some of the individuals involved in that process.

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The incident that claimed the life of equipment operator Donald Kiehl has raised questions regarding the circumstances that led his bulldozer to fall through the ice into a pond while traveling between Gold Creek and Stephan Lake.  The equipment convoy is operating under a Department of Natural Resources permit that allows it to travel overland and requires the vehicles to remain on snow and ice covered terrain.  The original permit terms extend through May 15th.

Mike Wood, Chase Community Council Chair, clarified the route that the heavy equipment is to travel to reach Stephan Lake, where it is intended to construct an airstrip supporting preliminary research operations as part of the Susitna-Watana Dam project.  According to Wood, the cat-train was to take the McWilliams Gold Creek trail for approximately seventeen miles before turning east onto tundra with no developed trails or roads.  The DNR permit covers most of the route off of the trail, with the last leg going across native lands that require separate permits from the Tyonek Native Corporation and CIRI.  While Wood is familiar with the area, and had flown over the trail the week prior to the incident, he had not seen what conditions were like afterwards.

As part of DNR’s permit oversight, a compliance visit was conducted on Friday, the same day as the accident.  Southcentral Regional Manager for Mining, Land, and Water, Rick Thompson, stated that the visit indicated that the terms of the permit were being followed.

Rick Thompson Clip  18s

The contractor carrying out the convoy to Stephan Lake is Wasilla-based Alaska Diversified Services.  KTNA was able to speak to Ken Larson, the owner of the contracting firm, regarding the conditions of the trail.  When asked whether the approach of breakup season caused any additional concerns for the safety of the drivers and their equipment, Larson echoed DNR’s opinion that the trail was in good enough condition for travel.

Ken Larson Clip 25s

According to an Alaska Public Radio News story from May 13th, the small alpine pond is what is referred to as a “kettle pond,” which often do not freeze completely solid during the winter.  Larson added that Alaska Diversified Services has requested an extension of the DNR permit in order to extract the lost D6 bulldozer from the pond where it sank before moving on to Stephan Lake.  As of the time of the interview, Alaska Diversified Services does intend to complete the terms of its contract and bring the remaining equipment to the build site.  There is not yet a firm timeline for when the cat-train will reach Stephan Lake.

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