Rural Nevada Remains in Grieving Over Mine Crash

mining accident

When most outsiders think of Nevada, their thoughts go immediately to the glimmering lights and unabashed spectacle of the Las Vegas Strip. But we Nevadans know that our state is vastly more complex, diverse, and interesting (no offense to the Strip) than this thumbnail sketch. A recent fatal accident involving a semi-truck and a commercial bus has shown the spotlight on a section of that diversity – Nevada’s rural gold mining community.

Carlin, the Scene of the Tragedy

Carlin, Nevada is a small town about halfway between the rural cities of Battle Mountain and Elko, Nevada.  It is also about halfway between the populous Reno-Sparks metropolitan area and Salt Lake City, Utah. Even for many longtime residents of our state, Carlin may be something of a pass-by community – drivers headed across the lonely stretch of Interstate 80 between Reno and Salt Lake City may have a clearer mental image in their minds of the Carlin Tunnels than the town of Carlin itself.

Drivers will know of the two large tunnels bored through the stone walls that form Carlin Canyon; these openings allowed Interstate 80 to maintain a relatively straight path rather than careening to match the twists and turns of the Humboldt River, which flows underneath. The tunnels – one for eastbound traffic and the other for westbound vehicles – were completed in September 1975. Attentive motorists may also have noticed two other tunnels as they passed by them: these are two tunnels bored for rail traffic for what were then the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Western Pacific Railroad, competing rail entities. In modern times, the Union Pacific Railroad owns and controls both sets of the former rail lines’ infrastructure. [1]

What virtually no passerby driver will know is that Carlin is also the starting point of Nevada Route 766, a highway that snakes through the Carlin Canyon north of the town and toward several active gold mines. State Route 766 has witnessed a significant number of semi-truck accidents given its relatively short length and the relative saturation of commercial vehicles on the highway. Precisely because the highway is the logistical artery for many of the key supplies of the gold mines, these accidents have often involved especially concerning risks of collateral damage. Recent tractor-trailer crashes along State Route 766 have spilled thousands of gallons of diesel fuel, sulfuric acid, and other harmful chemicals. [2]

Some local leaders say they have been calling on transit authorities, such as the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) to improve safety conditions on this notoriously dangerous stretch of Nevada highway. In response to this criticism, NDOT as stood by its traffic engineers’ assessment of a safe speed limit – 60 miles per hour (MPH) in general, with semi-trucks negotiating a curve directed to slow to 45 MPH – and general safety features such as center-line rumble strips. Rumble strips are lines of grooved pavement, generally found to the right of the driving lanes before the road’s “shoulder” and also commonly on the center line that divides opposite lanes of traffic, which provide a tactile and auditory alert to a driver who has allowed the vehicle to cross too far to either side of the roadway. [3]

The August Accident

On August 24, a tractor-trailer transporting ore from one of the gold mines along State Route 766 crossed the center line of the highway and crashed head-on into a bus carrying mine workers preparing to go on-shift. The crash happened at about 6:00 a.m., and it killed the 29-year-old semi-truck driver. A beloved 62-year-old miner was the only fatality aboard the bus, but each of the other 20 passengers were taken to regional hospitals for treatment. The breakdown follows:

  • Total individuals involved in crash: 22
  • Number pronounced dead at the scene: 2
  • Number transported to Northern Nevada Regional Hospital (NNRH) for treatment: 14
  • Number transported to larger hospitals in Reno or Salt Lake City: 6

Staff of NNRH acknowledged that they seldom had to face casualties of this scale, and they expressed humility and thanks to the volunteers and donors who helped or wanted to do so. Days after the accident, five of the six survivors transported to larger hospitals remained in critical condition, while one had been released. [4]  Seeing as the unfortunate accident happened while the miners were on the job, Nevada law would more then likely make the victims of the accident eligible for workers’ compensation from their employer.

Both the semi-truck driver and the passenger aboard the commercial bus who was killed were residents of Spring Creek, a small rural community in Nevada. The notion that most fatal car accidents kill “rural people” on rural roads may be the conventional wisdom of amassed anecdotes, but it is also empirically correct. One study commissioned by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal agency, found that “[n]ot only did the majority of fatal crashes occur in rural areas, the majority of fatal crashes involved rural residents, and the majority of the rural residents involved in fatal crashes were traveling on rural roads.” [5]

Among many factors that makes driving on rural highways relatively more dangerous, a significant one is that commercial vehicles comprise a major share of rural traffic. While this particular phenomenon is difficult to address with current technology, more can be done to make our highways safe for all users. The accident described above also presents an interesting case study in incentives: the semi-truck transporting the ore was coming from Nevada Gold Mines operation, and the bus carrying the passengers was bound for a Nevada Gold Mines facility, yet Nevada Gold Mines operated neither vehicle. It had contracted with Pilot Thomas Logistics to haul its ore and with Coach USA to transport its workers; this complicates the assignment of liability as survivors and the victims’ families seek redress for this horrible tragedy. [6]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlin_Tunnel

[2] https://elkodaily.com/news/local/still-hospitalized-after-mine-bus-truck-crash/article_3e808550-6490-51cd-b2a2-ba922e2b401f.html

[3] https://elkodaily.com/news/local/still-hospitalized-after-mine-bus-truck-crash/article_3e808550-6490-51cd-b2a2-ba922e2b401f.html

[4] https://elkodaily.com/news/local/still-hospitalized-after-mine-bus-truck-crash/article_3e808550-6490-51cd-b2a2-ba922e2b401f.html

[5] https://one.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/research/ruralz.htm

[6] https://elkodaily.com/news/local/still-hospitalized-after-mine

Benson and Bingham