Tag Archives: coal mining

Working Alongside the Great Barrier Reef

By Michael Roche
Chief Executive, Queensland Resources Council

Coal is a cornerstone of Queensland’s economy and is responsible for more than half the value of the state’s merchandise exports of AU$47 billion in 2014. Despite challenging market conditions, coal exports also reached a new record of 216 million tonnes in 2014—an amount that is on track to be exceeded in 2015.

Directly and indirectly in 2014–15, the coal mining industry generated almost AU$32 billion in economic activity—equivalent to 11% of Queensland’s Gross State Product, while supporting 183,000 jobs, or around 8% of its workforce. It also contributed AU$1.6 billion to the Queensland budget in royalties.

The 60,000-km2 Bowen Basin in central Queensland is the jewel in the state’s resource crown, containing much of its known Permian coal resources, including virtually all of the known mineable prime metallurgical coal.

Including other exports such as beef, sugar, timber, metals, and fertilizer, northern Queensland exports goods worth AU$40 billion each year. This amount excludes the emerging coal-seam gas to LNG industry, which shipped its first consignment from Gladstone in December 2014.

Queensland’s exporting industries have a long history and must continue to work responsibly alongside one of Australia’s, and the world’s, most important natural sites: the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The GBR takes up an area of about 350,000 km2, and is the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem boasting one of the most complex and biodiverse natural ecosystems on earth.1 In addition to the natural beauty, the GBR contributes economically to Queensland—about AU$5.4 billion to the state’s economy each year—based on the two million people that visit the site annually, although tourism is limited to a relatively small area (about 7% of the reef).2

The exporting industries, including the coal industry, can and will continue their legacy of working responsibly alongside the GBR.

Tourism around the Great Barrier Reef is a significant contributor to Queensland’s economy.

Tourism around the Great Barrier Reef is a significant contributor to Queensland’s economy.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF QUEENSLAND’S COAL EXPORTS AND THE GBR

Forty years ago, the Australian government placed 348,000 km2 of the Coral Sea into the GBR Marine Park and created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to manage the area. It simultaneously recognized the essential role of 11 trading ports along 2300 km of coastline adjacent to the marine park, including two coal export ports: Gladstone and Hay Point.

The GBR’s inscription on the World Heritage Register in 1981 for its “outstanding universal value” included the port precincts, which gave UNESCO an interest in both the marine park administered by the Australian government and the ports mostly owned and operated by the Queensland state government. Although World Heritage Sites are internationally recognized for their value to humanity, the management and protection of such sites remains the responsibility of the nation in which the sites occur. Australia and Queensland have long recognized that the GBR could be protected simultaneously with a vibrant export industry.

Thus, even after GBR was named a World Heritage Site careful expansion of exports occurred. In 1984, Abbot Point terminal became Queensland’s third coal export facility adjacent to the GBR and the additional capacity helped expand coal exports.

Coal export facility operating near the Great Barrier Reef.

Coal export facility operating near the Great Barrier Reef.

The coal export facilities have confirmed Queensland’s position as the world’s largest seaborne exporter of metallurgical coals, which is an essential ingredient for producing blast furnace steel. From Gladstone, which services the southern end of the Bowen Basin, to Abbot Point in the north, is a distance of some 650 km. The contact with GBR is limited as that is less than one third of the distance the Queensland coastline adjoins the GBR Marine Park. In the south of the state, high-volatile thermal coals from the Clarence-Moreton and Surat basins are exported through the Port of Brisbane. To the west of the Bowen Basin lies the undeveloped Galilee Basin, boasting high-quality thermal coal resources estimated in the tens of billions of tonnes.

A RECORD OF RESPONSIBLE EXPORTING

Queensland’s industries, including the coal industry, have been successfully exporting goods from eastern shores for decades and have a long history of balancing environmental protection—especially along the precious GBR—with a vibrant export-based economy able to respond to international commodity demand.

The ability to balance protection of the GBR and a healthy export industry is founded on the fact that Australia is a world leader in shipping management. The country’s innovation has been recognized by the International Maritime Organisation’s adoption of a mandatory reporting system which was developed in Australia specifically to protect the GBR Marine Park. This world-class system covers the park and extends into the Coral Sea. REEFVTS (Vessel Tracking Service) operates around the clock, supported by automated position reporting, ship identification, and other advanced support tools. Compulsory marine pilot areas—where specifically licensed pilotage is required—also apply in sections of the reef. Despite a substantial increase in ship movements since 1996, groundings have been reduced from one per year to just a single incident in the 10 years since REEFVTS was introduced.

Despite a record of excellence and improving protection of the GBR, there have been challenges, which led to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) considering whether to list the GBR as “in danger”, which would have dramatically restricted the state’s ability to grow its exports. Fortunately, on 1 July 2015, in a unanimous decision the WHC opted not to place the GBR on its “in danger” sites list and instead to accept a resolution to support Australia’s Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan).3 This outcome was welcomed by the Australian and Queensland governments.4

THE POTENTIAL FOR GROWTH

In 2011 a Deloitte study commissioned by the QRC revealed plans for Queensland resources projects worth AU$142 billion over the following decade, much of which would be destined for exports. There was never a possibility that all proposed projects would move forward, but AU$70 billion was ultimately committed to the development of an export LNG industry at Gladstone, underpinned by the discovery of more than 42,000 petajoules of methane in the Surat and Bowen Basin coal seams.

Also responding to an unprecedented surge in demand for minerals and energy from Asia, Queensland coal miners announced greenfield, brownfield, and export supply chain enhancements, including port expansions. The prospect of opening the Galilee Basin created huge international interest, especially from Indian companies focused on securing long-term supplies of high-quality thermal coal.

The interest from the Indian companies was not surprising. Around 300 million people in India do not have any access to electricity. Many of those that have access are unable to rely on its availability, partly due to a lack of coal to fuel their power plants. The aim of Indian developers, such as Adani and GVK Resources, is to source high-quality Galilee Basin coal. In India, this coal can be used to reduce emissions and provide quality of life improvements that can be taken for granted in the developed world.

The proposed development of the Galilee Basin, coupled with forecast coal and gas production expansions, galvanized Australian environmental activists into convening what was described as an “anti-coal convergence” in late 2011. In March 2012, a funding strategy document formulated at the gathering was leaked to the media and signaled the start of a campaign to have the GBR declared “in danger” by UNESCO, thus preventing the expansion.

AN UNFOUNDED CAMPAIGN TO HALT PROGRESS

The funding strategy document created around the GBR case, called “Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom”5,6, continues to serve as the play book for activists. “We urgently need to build the anti-coal movement and mobilise off the back of the community backlash to coal-seam gas. If we fail to act decisively over the next two years, it will be too late to have any chance of stopping almost all of the key infrastructure projects and most of the mega-mines,” it begins.

The strategy identifies the potential of the GBR to be used as political leverage against the expansion of the coal and gas industries in Queensland and, specifically, the opening up of the state’s fourth major coal province—the Galilee Basin. The activists noted Queensland’s major coal ports are “…next to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and there are strong opportunities for alliance building with scientists and industries that will be negatively impacted (fishing, tourism, etc.)”.

The campaign scored its first victory when a UNESCO Reactive Monitoring Mission visited Queensland in 2012, assigned to investigate unfounded claims that Australia had given the green light to oil and gas production in the marine park and the dredging of channels through it. It also became evident as inquiries continued that UNESCO had not been made fully aware of the environmental approvals process required for major developments in Queensland.

This campaign made several unsubstantiated claims, such as one from Greenpeace that coal exports alone would reach almost one billion tonnes by 2020, transported annually in more than 10,000 coal ships. However, such claims are not supported by the numbers. In 2014, Queensland’s record export of 216 million tonnes continued a long-term growth trend of around 5% per year. Continuation of that growth trend would see Queensland coal exports at around 280 million tonnes by 2020, massively shy of Greenpeace’s predicted one billion tonnes. As for the number of coal ships calling at coal ports in Queensland, the latest forecast from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority is for just under 2500 coal ships by 2020, or seven ships a day. Currently on any given day, around 40–50 commercial ships carrying various bulk commodities are traveling in the GBR zone. In comparison a ship arrives or leaves the Port of Singapore every two to three minutes.

The campaign also grossly exaggerated shipping numbers to portray the inevitability of a reef grounding and also to exaggerate the requirement and impact of port dredging. In reality, a modest dredging program involving the relocation to land of 1.1 million tonnes of sediment would be required at Abbot Point to support Adani Mining’s Carmichael project in the Galilee Basin. To put this into perspective, CSIRO, the world-renowned Australian science organization, estimated that in an average year, up to 17 million tonnes of sediment, nutrients, and agricultural chemicals enter the GBR lagoon from 35 river catchments (unrelated in any way to the ports).7 Notably, the proposed dredging site is 19 and 30 km away from the nearest coral communities. Scientific modeling has found that sediment will be highly localized to the dredging site and will not impact these coral communities.

Abbot Point terminal is the newest of Queensland’s coal export facilities.

Abbot Point terminal is the newest of Queensland’s coal export facilities.

The GBR does face environmental challenges. In 2013 a Reef Scientific Consensus Statement by 50 of the world’s leading marine scientists concluded: “The overarching consensus is that key GBR ecosystems are showing declining trends in condition due to continuing poor water quality, cumulative impacts of climate change and increasing intensity of extreme events.”8 While these impacts are concerning for Australia and the world, they should not be confused with any impacts from exports around the GBR.

Similarly, in its 2014 Outlook Report, the GBR Marine Park Authority said that the greatest risks to the GBR are climate change, poor water quality from land-based runoff, impacts from coastal development, and some remaining impacts of fishing.9 The report went on to say that the effects of port activities are relatively more localized than the broad-scale impacts from land-based runoff. A recent report card focused on improving water quality around the GBR emphasized the “need to accelerate the rate of change and drive innovation” in the agriculture industry to protect GBR water quality, while the exports industry was not even mentioned.10

THE WAY FORWARD

Australian governments have heeded the views of the WHC in developing a positive long-term response to their concerns, including a ban on marine disposal in the GBR of capital dredging material (material removed for port expansions). This again raises the bar for shipping management in the GBR. QRC believes that over time the ban will inevitably mean that some necessary port developments to keep pace with trade growth will not proceed or will have to be scaled back.

QRC is grateful that the WHC based its decision on the resounding scientific consensus and resisted the call from environmentalists to declare the GBR world heritage “in danger”. Although campaigns to halt expansion will continue, it is important to consider the benefits to Queensland, Australia, and the world—including the poor in developing Asia who are in need of reliable energy.

The Great Barrier Reef is listed as a World Heritage Site due its exceptional natural biodiversity.

The Great Barrier Reef is listed as a World Heritage Site due its exceptional natural biodiversity.

QRC is committed to ensuring the protection of the GBR through the rigorous and comprehensive implementation of the Reef 2050 Plan. That commitment has been recognized by the Australian and Queensland governments in QRC’s appointment to the multi-stakeholder Reef 2050 Advisory Committee, which is chaired by the Honorable Penelope Wensley, former Governor of Queensland and former senior diplomat. Queensland’s coal industry looks forward to continuing its role as the state’s leading exporter while working responsibly alongside one of the world’s natural treasures, the Great Barrier Reef.

REFERENCES

  1. UNESCO. (2015). Great Barrier Reef, whc.unesco.org/en/list/154
  2. Tourism Tropical North Queensland. (2014, August). Fact sheet: Great Barrier Reef – Economic value, media.ttnq.org.au/_documents/9-483dffeceff1d4c611ee5afbb6264eca.pdf
  3. Australian Government, Department of the Environment. (2015). Reef 2050 long-term sustainability plan, www.environment.gov.au/marine/gbr/long-term-sustainability-plan
  4. Australian Government, Federal Minister for the Environment. (2015, 1 July). Final World Heritage Committee decision praises Australia and unanimously rejects ‘in danger’ listing for Great Barrier Reef, www.environment.gov.au/minister/hunt/2015/mr20150701b.html
  5. Hepburn, J., Burton, B., & Hardy, S. (2011). Stopping the Australian coal export boom, www.qrc.org.au/_dbase_upl/stoppingtheaustraliancoalexportboom.pdf/li>
  6. Hepworth, A. (2012, 6 March). Coal activists’ strategy exposed. The Australian Business Review, www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/coal-activists-strategy-exposed/story-e6frg9df-1226289933461
  7. Australian Government and Queensland Government. (2013). 2013 scientific consensus statement, www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/about/scientific-consensus-statement/
  8. Kroon, F., . . . , Joo, M. (2010). Baseline pollutant loads to the Great Barrier Reef, www.qrc.org.au/_dbase_upl/GBRBaselineLoads_WfHC_PDF%20Standard.pdf
  9. Australian Government, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. (2014). Outlook report 2014, www.gbrmpa.gov.au/cdn/2014/GBRMPA-Outlook-Report-2014/
  10. Australian Government, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. (2015). Report card 2014, www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/measuring-success/report-cards/2014/

For more information please email info@qrc.org.au

 

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.
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Returning Mined Land to Productivity Through Reclamation

By Jason Hayes
Associate Director, American Coal Council
Editor-in-Chief, American Coal Magazine

Nearly 8.2 billion tonnes of coal were produced globally in 2014.1 Although a great deal of activity occurs around the extraction of coal, a limited amount of land is disturbed during mining compared to total landmass. For example, Natural Resources Canada has estimated that less than 0.01% of Canada’s total landmass was used in metal and mineral mining in over 100 years.2 Similarly, Haigh estimated that mining affected 0.16% of the U.S.landmass from 1940 to 1971.3 However, even if mining affects a relatively small amount of land, its impact can be significant and the extractive industries have an ethical and often legal obligation to return land to productivity.

Each coal mine has a limited life span due to the finite nature of the resource being extracted. Eventually the resource is exhausted, or the point is reached at which it is no longer profitable to extract for any number of reasons, such as increasing mine depth, increasing strip ratios, changing regulations, or market pressures.

When extractive activities cease, restoration processes must be completed, although they normally begin far sooner. In fact, reclamation processes typically begin while active mining is still occurring in another area of a mine. Thus, mining and restoration can be completed continuously and progressively throughout the life of a mine.

The costs associated with these restoration activities can be substantial: One estimate suggests US$1.5 million per mine, although varied mine sizes, regulatory regimes, or the presence of legacy reclamation costs could result in wide fluctuations in cost.4

Today in many parts of the world, reclamation and restoration plans must be prepared prior to mining. An improved understanding of the potential impacts of industrial activities, societal attitudes toward mining, increasingly stringent regulatory regimes, and dynamic market conditions now typically require companies to state clearly how their operating area will be restored before mining can begin.

There are various approaches to reclamation, and collaborative efforts between industry and government can help to improve mine management and reclamation processes. Thus, best practices and select case studies are worth exploring to highlight examples of successful mine closure and remediation.

A former opencast coal mine in Montana, U.S. now hosts grazing land. (AP Photo/Billings Gazette, Larry Mayer)

A former opencast coal mine in Montana, U.S. now hosts grazing land. (AP Photo/Billings Gazette, Larry Mayer)

THE PROCESS OF RECLAMATION

Reclamation can be roughly defined as the replacement of soil materials—often to approximate original contour—and revegetation of mined areas or areas adjacent to mines that have been affected by mining activities. An alternative definition, offered by the International Energy Agency’s Clean Coal Centre, is “the process of repairing any negative effects of mining activities on the environment”. 4

Reclamation activities sometimes can also employ passive means of ecosystem restoration—wherein a less intensive management approach is taken and, for example, flora and fauna are allowed to self-colonize after soil replacement and stabilization are completed.5 However, the vast majority of contemporary reclamation and restoration efforts are based on technical reclamation, which exceeds simply repairing the affected property. Technical reclamation activities often aim to proactively manage a mined area for specific natural or recreational value, or other human uses, which can include infrastructure needs such as airports, schools, or shopping centers. Reclamation activities can also target agricultural or silvicultural (i.e., forestry) objectives. Plans to return mined areas to a more natural state, focusing on soil, vegetative, wildlife, and/or water management values, can also play a large role in guiding reclamation activities.

Both underground and opencast mines require reclamation, but the approaches are different. Reclamation activities for underground mines will typically require less aboveground activity, but can necessitate extensive management to avoid drainage and flooding issues after mine closure. This management can involve techniques such as filling of excavated areas with mine spoil or fly ash and diverting or controlling the flow of groundwater to keep it from entering existing mine structures. Doing so avoids the risk of rising water becoming contaminated by dissolved metals and other substances and potentially being discharged into rivers and streams. Notably, higher levels of calcite or carbonates in the rock, however, may neutralize acidic mine water, allowing metals to stay immobile.6

Reclamation of opencast mines typically involves replacement of overburden that was removed or repositioned to access buried coal layers. When excavated areas are built up, re-landscaping or recontouring is completed along with drainage control measures. Recontouring will be guided by mine plan objectives (i.e., the intended end use for the land). Where natural processes are sought, recontouring will typically attempt to return landforms to the mine site’s approximate original contour, or to mimic natural contours. Where other human uses are planned for, the land will often be leveled or shaped in a manner that improves access or aids in future infrastructure development.

ENSURING BEST PRACTICES ON RECLAMATION

The time frame extending from exploration to post-reclamation and closure requires decades (see Figure 1). In many cases, reclamation processes—which can include the mine closure and decommissioning stage, as well as the post-closure stage—can require as long as, or even longer than, the combined previous stages of exploration, site construction, and mining.

FIGURE 1. A mine project life cycle7

FIGURE 1. A mine project life cycle7

Even with mining plans in place, mining can substantially affect local or regional environments. Proper reclamation of mine sites, however, can avoid many risks, including unstable spoil piles, acid drainage and water quality issues, and potential cave-ins.

Best practice reclamation activities are designed to limit or avoid these impacts to the greatest degree possible. Although fully listing the legislative, regulatory, or best practices standards governing global mine reclamation is outside the scope of this article, a few prominent examples are worth highlighting. For example, general requirements for the approval of mining permits could resemble the conservation practice standards published by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). NRCS describes a threefold purpose for land reclamation:

  1. Prevent negative impacts to soil, water, and air resources in and near mined areas
  2. Restore the quality of soils to their pre-mining level
  3. Maintain or improve landscape visual and functional quality8

Australia’s Department of Industry Tourism and Resources gives similar guidance for land reclamation, but also encourages consultation, reporting, and monitoring with stakeholders during mine plan development and mining activities. Companies are also urged to rehabilitate progressively through the full life cycle of the mine and, where possible, to manage and rehabilitate historical disturbances.9 Expanded regulatory oversight combined with a trend toward a lesser number of larger, mechanized mining operations that are governed by binding mining plans are decreasing concerns about unregulated or unmonitored activities.

RIGHTING THE PAST

Employing best practices during contemporary mine reclamation helps to avoid the challenges associated with mines that were not properly reclaimed in the past. The varied nature of reporting measures and regulatory regimes governing mine management worldwide are compounded by the fact that many private or unregulated mines have been created, especially in developing nations where regulatory oversight may not yet be as thorough. Thus, it is difficult—if not impossible—to get a full count of the number of abandoned coal mines worldwide.

The legacy of abandoned mines, however, is being addressed in many areas. For example, since the passage of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) in the U.S., direct fees have been collected by government agencies from existing coal mining companies. Various states and Native American tribes have used over US$4.06 billion of those funds to reclaim almost “240,000 acres of hazardous high-priority coal-related problems”.10 As described by the UK Environment Agency (2008),6 similar programs are being carried out across the UK and internationally.

RECLAMATION COLLABORATION

Collaborative efforts between mining companies and conservation organizations can promote successful mine reclamation as these organizations can lend expertise in developing best practices for wildlife, water, plant, and/or soil management. Demonstrating a transparent working relationship with conservation groups and other stakeholders can also help regulatory agencies when reviewing permit applications. If these agencies observe widespread support for mine plans and objectives and are convinced the area will be properly reclaimed and managed in the post-mining stages, permit approvals can likely be obtained much more easily.

One example of a collaborative effort is the U.S.-based Appalachian Wildlife Foundation’s Mine Land Stewardship Initiative (MLSI), which enables industry to pair with conservation organizations to move ahead in a challenging regulatory environment. The MLSI is working to design voluntary reclamation standards that “elevate the overall ecological performance of the coal industry”11 and help to enhance

  1. Conservation and restoration of ecosystem services
  2. Conservation and restoration of wildlife habitat
  3. Protection of water quality
  4. Recreational opportunities for mining communities
  5. Scientific and technical knowledge needed to protect and restore wildlife and aquatic habitats on mine lands11,12

Efforts like the MLSI are a positive and proactive approach to reduce confusion and litigation, increase stakeholder involvement and buy-in, improve transparency, and ensure the highest standard of reclamation is carried out.

BONDING AND FINANCIAL ASSURANCE

Even with proactive management efforts like the MLSI, reclamation can be an expensive endeavor. As the mine will not continue producing saleable material, no additional income will be brought in after operations cease. Therefore, most regulatory agencies require some form of a financial safety net, or bonding, to ensure sufficient funds are available for reclamation even if a bankruptcy occurs. In this manner, company insolvency or an abandoned mine will not impose mine closure and reclamation costs on taxpayers.

While having adequate funds for reclamation is clearly important, public policy must recognize that environmental protection, reclamation in this case, must be balanced with financial realities to avoid stifling economic activity and to allow mining companies to operate profitably. The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) has reported that expectations from an increasingly risk-averse public and government have been forcing assurance costs higher.13 The ICMM described how, in 1998, a mining company based in Australia had “identified more than 1,056 financial assurance instruments in place in four countries, which represents a contingent liability of greater than AUD$20 million. By 2004 the comparative amount had risen to AUD$60 million.”13 ICMM expressed concern that setting aside growing levels of operating funds in bonds restricts investment and operational flexibility. In fact, increasingly conservative expectations of certainty relating to environmental protection could place such strict financial and administrative pressures on mining companies that mining projects could be cancelled as uneconomic.

When this photo was taken in 2004, the Phoenix #2 mine had been backfilled. Final grading and seeding had yet to be completed on the top lift. Rock side drains were constructed at the perimeter to prevent erosion.

When this photo was taken in 2004, the Phoenix #2 mine had been backfilled. Final grading and seeding had yet to be completed on the top lift. Rock side drains were constructed at the perimeter to prevent erosion.

CASE STUDY

Numerous mines around the world are demonstrating successful reclamation projects, several of which are profiled in other articles in this issue of Cornerstone. One such project is Coal-Mac Mining’s Phoenix #2 surface mine in West Virginia, U.S. The Phoenix #2 mine was the recipient of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining’s 2010 Excellence in Reforestation Award for almost a decade’s worth of reclamation efforts and implementation of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative’s (ARRI) Forest Reclamation Approach (FRA).14

Ditches slow runoff and encourage groundwater recharge at Coal-Mac Mining’s Phoenix #2 mine.

Ditches slow runoff and encourage groundwater recharge at Coal-Mac Mining’s Phoenix #2 mine.

ARRI is a working group comprised of citizen representatives, industry, academia, and government, and was formed to encourage planting of productive trees on reclaimed coal mine lands and abandoned mine lands.15 FRA is a means by which mining companies and forest managers can improve forest productivity, wildlife habitat, floral diversity, and water management on reclaimed mine lands. The FRA is made up of five steps:

  1. Create a suitable rooting medium for good tree growth that is no less than four feet deep and comprised of topsoil, weathered sandstone, and/or the best available material.
  2. Loosely grade the topsoil or topsoil substitutes established in step one to create a non-compacted growth medium.
  3. Use ground covers that are compatible with growing trees.
  4. Plant two types of trees: (a) early succession species for wildlife and soil stability and (b) commercially valuable crop trees
  5. Use proper tree planting techniques
Phoenix #2 mine demonstrating new growth approaching year five (2009)

Phoenix #2 mine demonstrating new growth approaching year five (2009)

Phoenix #2 mine is a 560-acre (227-ha) operation, originally permitted in January 2001 under the approximate original contour (AOC)-plus backfill guidelines. Under these guidelines, final backfill elevations were established to mimic the natural terrain of West Virginia, avoid soil compaction, and enhance post-mine land use.

As year six approaches (2010), the Phoenix #2 mine area is returning to a productive, natural state.

As year six approaches (2010), the Phoenix #2 mine area is returning to a productive, natural state.

CONCLUSIONS

Finite resources entail a finite mining life cycle. As coal reserves in a mine are removed or become uneconomical to continue mining, reclamation activities will replace removed soil and/or substrate materials and revegetate the mine in an effort to (1) return it to as close to natural state as possible or (2) redesign landforms to allow improved human access to, or use of, an area.

Key objectives in reclamation activities are to reduce potential damage and prevent negative impacts to the natural environment in and near mined areas, to restore the viability and growing potential of soils to their pre-mining level, and to maintain or improve landscape visual and functional quality.

Reviewing effective examples of mine reclamation from around the globe, such as those profiled in this issue, allows the extractive industry to develop a suite of best practices for successfully reclaiming mined areas. These properly reclaimed mines can provide essential lessons on technology, policy, and collaboration and serve as the gold standard for mine reclamation efforts.

REFERENCES

  1. BP. (2015). Statistical review, www.bp.com/statisticalreview
  2. Natural Resources Canada. Minerals and Metals Sector. Resource Management Division. (1998). Background paper on land access, protected areas and sustainable development. Natural Resources Canada.
  3. Haigh, M.J. (Ed.). (2000). Reclaimed land: Erosion control, soils and ecology. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema.
  4. Sloss, L. (2013, February). Coal mine site reclamation CCC/216. International Energy Association Clean Coal Centre, www.usea.org/sites/default/files/022013_Coal%20mine%20site%20
    reclamation_ccc216.pdf
  5. Krutka, H., & Li, L. (2013). Case studies of successfully reclaimed mining sites. Cornerstone, 1(2), cornerstonemag.net/case-studies-of-successfully-reclaimed-mining-sites
  6. UK Environment Agency. (2008). Science report—Abandoned mines and the water environment SC030136-41, www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/291482/LIT_8879_df7d5c.pdf.
  7. International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). (2012). Mining’s contribution to sustainable development—An overview, www.icmm.com/library
  8. Natural Resources Conservation Service. (2006). Conservation practice standard—Land reclamation, currently mined land, www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1253605.pdf
  9. Australian Government, Department of Industry Tourism and Resources. (2006). Mine rehabilitation, www.dmp.wa.gov.au/documents/mine_rehab.pdf
  10. Abandoned Mine Lands Portal. (2015). What’s being done, www.abandonedmines.gov/wbd.html
  11. Ledford, D. (2012). Industry/conservation group cooperation: Promoting environmental and wildlife wellbeing. American Coal, 1, 30–34.
  12. Appalachian Wildlife Foundation. (2015). Mine Land Stewardship Initiative, www.appalachianwildlife.com/mlsi.html
  13. ICMM. (2006, March). Guidance paper: Financial assurance for mine closure and reclamation, www.icmm.com/document/23
  14. Angel, P., Burger, J., & Graves, D. (2006). The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative and the Forestry Reclamation Approach, www.safnet.org/fp/documents/Mine_reclamation_06.pdf/li>
  15. Link, K. (2011). A dedication to West Virginia. American Coal, 2, 29.

The author can be reached at jhayes@americancoalcouncil.org

 

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.
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Learning From Positive Outcomes on Land Reclamation

By Holly Krutka
Executive Editor, Cornerstone

As this issue of Cornerstone goes to press, world leaders are meeting in Paris, France, for the COP21 negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Momentum for the meetings has long been building, and future issues of Cornerstone will cover the outcomes, as they pertain to the coal industry and the broader energy community. As we have done in the past, we will continue to focus on policy approaches and technologies—including high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) coal-fired power plants and carbon capture, utilization, and storage—which enable coal utilization in a carbon-constrained world.

Krutka Headshot

While the significance of reducing emissions is not easily overstated, the environmental footprint of energy production and utilization is far from limited to greenhouse gases. For example, working with local communities and governments to ensure mined land is successfully reclaimed is a process that may not garner the same amount of attention as climate change mitigation, but to those living near mines it can cut at the heart of sustainable energy. Thus, in this issue of Cornerstone, we are highlighting lessons learned and international best practices in reclamation projects—principally from opencast mines. For countries currently growing their coal production, the decades of experience gained in reclamation efforts around the world could help leapfrog standard learning cycle time requirements to enhance reclamation practices.

Reclamation often begins while coal is being actively mined elsewhere at the same site. Such an approach minimizes the footprint of an opencast mine at any given time. Prior to the first excavation shovel, successful reclamation requires soliciting input from local stakeholders and ecology experts. Identifying any plant or animal species at risk, planning for drainage, and defining the optimal end use for the land are key first steps that are site specific. For example, as highlighted in this issue, while the western U.S. may use reclaimed land for livestock grazing, in the Czech Republic, which has recently announced that it is increasing limits on lignite production, nature preserves are a good fit. In cases such as the Czech Republic, spontaneous reclamation—allowing nature to do the work—has demonstrated ecological value.

Positive reclamation projects require an understanding of the local ecology and the risks posed by mining and other associated activities. Protection of the sage grouse in the western U.S. is an important success story of how mining companies have worked with local governments and environmental experts to minimize impact. As this issue of Cornerstone was being prepared, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the sage grouse would not be added to the endangered species list—a positive result for the bird and also the stakeholder groups that have been working to operate mines without affecting it unduly.

As global leaders negotiate on climate change mitigation, there may well be lessons on collaboration and commitment to the environment that can be gleamed by considering decades-long reclamation efforts. On behalf of the editorial team, I hope you enjoy this issue of Cornerstone.

 

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Mining Site Restoration by Spontaneous Processes in the Czech Republic

By Karel Prach
Professor, Department of Botany, Faculty of Science
University of Ceské Budejovice
Senior Research Scientist, Institute of Botany
Czech Academy of Sciences

Despite a recent decline, mining has a long tradition in the Czech Republic and continues to represent an important part of the country’s economy. Thus, the mining industry continues to have a significant impact on landscape and nature in the country—about 0.8% of the area has been directly affected by various mining activities, not including historical mining.1 In total, the amount of land impacted by mining in the Czech Republic is close to the world average, about 1%.2 Coal mining contributes the most to this figure, followed by stone quarrying and sand and gravel extraction. About 60 million tonnes of coal, including brown and black coals, are extracted annually. This coal contributes 55% of the country’s energy production, and no substantial decrease is expected in the near future.3

As coal will continue to play an important role in the Czech Republic, it is important to minimize the environmental impact of mining. This article focuses on spontaneous processes as an alternative option for reclamation of the spoil heaps left after coal mining, which is important because they are extensive and their formation continues even today.

Currently, the total estimated combined area of spoil heaps in the Czech Republic is around 270 km2—and approximately the same area has been heavily impacted by coal mining in other ways.1 Our research indicates that when reclaiming mining lands and spoil heaps, spontaneous processes can be a suitable option for restoration of ecologically desirable ecosystems on the disturbed sites.

The oldest (nearly 60 years) spontaneously revegetated spoil heap in the Most region, Czech Republic

The oldest (nearly 60 years) spontaneously revegetated spoil heap in the Most region, Czech Republic

APPROACHES TO RECLAMATION OF MINING SITES

Mining sites are most often technically reclaimed—an approach that is encouraged in the Czech Republic by both legislation and the economic interests of various firms dealing with reclamation. However, in my opinion, and based on decades of research, this often disregards scientific findings on best practices for reclamation. Technical reclamation is largely preferred based on the assumption that initial environmental conditions in post-mining sites are highly unfavorable, thus restricting the early establishment of plants and other organisms. However, this is not usually the case. Technical reclamation mostly involves remodeling surfaces, covering them with an organic material, often imported topsoil, and planting saplings in orchard-like rows or, alternatively, sowing a species-poor grass-legume mixture. While this can be important to gain forest or agricultural land in some regions or countries, in the Czech Republic there is no need for new agricultural or forest land. Another recent technical measure is to inundate (i.e., flood) the disused mines which seems to be a reasonable option. However, usually steep banks are formed which does not enable development of ecologically valuable littoral ecosystems.

Restoration using spontaneous ecological succession (i.e., passive restoration) or slightly manipulated or directed spontaneous succession, which can be considered active restoration, has been used rarely. This approach includes minimal intervention and allowing the natural world to do the work to reclaim spoil heaps. Spontaneous succession works with diverse landscapes, relies upon natural species composition and soil formation, and includes limited habitat management, if any.4 We estimate that only 0.01% of the spoil heaps from coal mining in the Czech Republic have been intentionally reclaimed using spontaneous processes.1

Spontaneously revegetated spoil heap from brown coal mining 20 years after dumping

Spontaneously revegetated spoil heap from brown coal mining 20 years after dumping

SUCCESSFUL MINING SITE RECLAMATION USING SPONTANEOUS SUCCESSION

After being studied for more than three decades, the Most region in the northwestern part of the Czech Republic now serves as an example of successful reclamation of coal mining lands through spontaneous succession.5,6 There are about 150 km2 of heaps with another 100 km2 that were directly disturbed by mining activities. The heaps in this region were commonly known as a “moon landscapes” due to their appearance shortly after heaping. However, the appearance of the heaps began to change dramatically, and immediately, after the start of spontaneous succession. In total, about 400 species of vascular plants are found on this land today—representing about 15% of the total Czech flora. This spread has occurred as plant seeds were naturally dispersed onto the heaps by wind, by animals, and sometimes also by humans during the heaping process.

Part of the same heap as in the previous photo, but after recent technical reclamation.

Part of the same heap as in the previous photo, but after recent technical reclamation.

The process of spontaneous reclamation of spoil heaps in the Most region can be broken into several stages. Annual and biennial plant species dominated in approximately the first five years. Total land coverage by plants in this stage was relatively low, usually less than 30%. However, these sparse habitats can be crucial for many threatened arthropods and birds.7,8

Between five and 15 years of the succession process, broad-leaved herbs prevailed, followed by grasses. As the region has a relatively warm, dry climate, woody species have a comparably low cover, about 30% on average, even in late successional stages. The cover of woody species is much higher on wetter sites and in close vicinity to forests.

Around 25 years into the succession process, a semi-natural forest steppe was formed, a state that can persist for a long period.6 This sparse woodland habitat serves as a refuge for forest-steppe arthropods, birds, and meadow and woodland plants and fungi.

The majority of the mining heaps has a potential to develop following this process, with the exception of wet depressions and sites formed by acid sands (with pH <3.5). The latter were generally characterized by no or rare vegetation. However, even such habitats offer value. They are important for some groups of invertebrates, mainly soil-dwelling bees and wasps, butterflies, and neuropteran insects.

Wetlands are especially valuable; these form quickly in de-pressions inside or along the heaps. They host some rare vascular plants, algae, amphibians, and aquatic and semi-aquatic arthropods. Spoil heaps are especially critical for amphibians and dragonflies and can contribute on a level important to the entire country.7,9 Unfortunately, technical reclamation usually eliminates these valuable habitats in the Czech Republic.

COMPARISON OF TECHNICAL VERSUS SPONTANEOUS RECLAMATION PRACTICES

Studying technically and spontaneously reclaimed sites reveals that technically reclaimed afforested heaps host a lower number of species than those that are spontaneously overgrown (see Figure 1). The push for technical reclamation is also based on concerns that spontaneous succession occurs much more slowly. However, technical reclamation in the Czech Republic usually begins on average eight years after heaping concludes. When that time lag is taken into consideration, as well as the fact that planted trees require time to grow, it is obvious that spontaneous succession is comparably as fast, or even faster, than technical reclamation.

FIGURE 1. Average number of vascular plant species in samples 5×5 m in size recorded in spontaneously and technically restored and afforested spoil heaps from brown coal mining in the Most region, Czech Republic. Adapted.10

FIGURE 1. Average number of vascular plant species in samples 5×5 m in size recorded in spontaneously and technically restored and afforested spoil heaps from brown coal mining in the Most region, Czech Republic. Adapted.10

Thus, the use of spontaneous succession for restoration of spoil heaps is quite convenient from an ecological point of view and should be used much more in the Czech Republic today. The disproportion in using technical reclamation versus spontaneous succession can be illustrated by the present situation of a large spoil heap in the Most region. The area of the heap is 1250 hectares out of which only 60 were reclaimed using spontaneous succession, which has now been ongoing for 20 years. Today, there are many rare and endangered plants present in the area reclaimed by spontaneous succession and none were found according to my research in the area technically reclaimed. Some sites on this heap have recently been altered through technical reclamation even after spontaneous succession has successfully taken hold. Such an approach is undesirable not only for nature conservation, but also economically, as no ecological benefit justifies the extra financial expenditure for this spoil heap. In this example, the technical reclamation cost has been around a billion Czech crowns (US$42 million).

BEST PRACTICES FOR RECLAMATION IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC

For successful implementation of ecologically justified restoration of post-mining sites, there are several main principles.4

First, reduce the extent of traditional technical reclamation and include spontaneous (or directed) succession in restoration schemes, because almost the entire mining area has the potential to be restored spontaneously if the land is not needed for other purposes. Technical reclamation can, and will, still play a vital role. Considering other interests (erosion control, recreation, or sport activities, etc.), it would be desirable to leave about 60% of the mining area to spontaneous succession, but in the present reality of regulations in the Czech Republic, a minimum of 20% is suggested. Spontaneous succession offers particular value at smaller mines, which usually demonstrate ecological growth even more quickly. Hence, the entire area of such mines could be left to spontaneous succession.

Second, it is important to form a heterogeneous (i.e., varied) surface during the mining or heaping processes (high geodiversity implies high biodiversity). Depressions enable the formation of usually highly valuable wetlands, including shallow aquatic habitats.

Third, in the case of technical afforestation, it is important to maintain at least the heterogeneous surface and not to drain the wetlands if it is not necessary for operational and safety reasons.

Fourth, nutrient-rich topsoil should be removed from the mining sites and should not be returned. When such topsoil is returned to a mining site, only a few competitively strong, often invasive species are supported and biodiversity strongly decreases.

Some additional considerations are also important throughout the entire mining and reclamation cycle. For example, prior to mining it is important to conduct a biological inventory of the locality, both in the mining area and its surroundings. It is desirable to direct mining in a way that maintains maximum natural habitats in the close surroundings. Most species colonize post-mining sites just based on close proximity.11

In addition, restoration schemes and environmental impact assessments should be prepared by specialists who are aware of the most recent findings in the field of restoration ecology and also of the possibilities and limitations of mining tech-
nologies. Mines should be monitored during mining, which can reveal the presence of endangered species and communities, and valuable geological and geomorphological phenomena. Mining should be modified accordingly if technically and economically reasonable.

If endangered species and communities occur on the post-mining site, proper management should be applied to maintain them. The expense of such management could be paid from the funds of mining companies dedicated to reclamation, or public funds dedicated to nature conservation. Invasive species should be monitored before, during, and after the mining process. If they represent a serious potential threat to successful restoration, they should be eradicated.

The most valuable post-mining sites should be declared as nature reserves. In addition, some spontaneously overgrown post-mining sites can be used for surface-disturbing human activities, (e.g., motocross, paint-ball, etc.). The irregularly disturbed surface usually supports biodiversity. 4

Spontaneously developed woodland on a 25-year-old spoil heap was partly replaced by planted saplings of Norway spruce (front).

Spontaneously developed woodland on a 25-year-old spoil heap was partly replaced by planted saplings of Norway spruce (front).

CONCLUSIONS

In many cases, post-mining sites can be beneficial for biodiversity, but this value may be optimally recognized through spontaneous succession. An extremely important characteristic of spontaneous-succession mining sites is that many endangered species often survive in such sites. High natural value exists in the nutrient-poor habitats offered by spontaneous-succession mining sites, often in contrast with the surrounding eutrophicated landscapes. Thus, mining sites can provide refuge, especially for competitively poor species.

Restoration using spontaneous processes is not always the best approach to reclaim post-mining sites. For example, in arid regions or on toxic substrates, or when the land has specific uses that require it, technical reclamation is justified.12 However, spontaneous succession should be included more frequently in restoration schemes and legislation so as to be considered at least equal to technical reclamation from the perspective of environmental protection and remediation.

REFERENCES

  1. Prach, K., Řehounková, K., Řehounek, J., & Konvalinková, P. (2010). Restoration of Central European mining sites: A summary of a multi-site analysis. Landscape Research, 36, 263–268.
  2. Walker, L.R. (Ed.) (1999). Ecosystems of disturbed ground. Ecosystems of the World 16. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  3. Ostravsko-karvinské doly (OKD). (2015). OKD Report, www.okd.cz
  4. Řehounková, K., Řehounek, J., & Prach, K. (Eds.) (2011). Near-natural restoration vs. technical reclamation of mining sites in the Czech Republic. České Budějovice: Faculty of Science USB. Available at www.restoration-ecology.eu
  5. Prach, K. (1987). Succession of vegetation on dumps from strip coal mining, N. W. Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. Folia Geobotanica & Phytotaxonomica, 22, 339–354.
  6. Prach, K. (2013). Vegetation development in central European coal mining sites. In J. Frouz (Ed.) Soil biota and ecosystem development in postmining sites (pp. 38-52). Boca Raton: CRC Press.
  7. Harabiš, F., Tichánek, F., & Tropek, R. (2013). Dragonflies of freshwater pools in lignite spoil heaps: Restoration management, habitat structure and conservation value. Ecological Engineering, 55, 51–61.
  8. Šálek, M. (2012). Spontaneous succession on opencast mining sites: Implications for bird diversity. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49, 1417–1425.
  9. Vojar, J. (2006). Colonization of post-mining landscapes by amphibians: A review. Scientia Agriculturae Bohemica, 37, 35–40.
  10. Hodačová, D., & Prach, K. (2002). Spoil heaps from brown coal mining: Technical reclamation vs. spontaneous re-vegetation. Restoration Ecology, 1, 385–391.
  11. Prach, K., Karešová,P., Jírová,A., Dvořáková,H., Konvalinková,P., & Řehounková,K. (2015). Do not neglect surroundings in restoration of disturbed sites. Restoration Ecology, 23, 310–314.
  12. Ninot, J.M., Herrero, P., Ferré, A., & Guardia, R. (2001). Effects of reclamation measures on plant colonization on lignite waste in the eastern Pyrenees, Spain. Applied Vegetation Science, 4, 29–34.

The author can be reached at prach@prf.jcu.cz

 

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The Colowyo Mine: A Case Study for Successful Mine Reclamation

By Juan Garcia
Technical Services Manager, Colowyo Mine
Martin Stearns
Senior Environmental Planner, Colowyo Mine

In northwestern Colorado, U.S., coal mining has been a critical part of the culture and economy since the turn of the 20th century. The history of the Colowyo Mine (Colowyo), currently operated by Western Fuels-Colorado, LLC, and owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. (Tri-State), dates back to 1908 when the underground Collom Mine operated in the 24-foot-thick Collom coal seam. Starting in 1976, Colowyo transitioned to a highly efficient multiseam dragline and truck-shovel surface mine that today produces approximately 2.5 million tons per year of high-quality, low-sulfur, sub-bituminous coal that is used for coal-fired electrical generation.

The coal produced from Colowyo feeds Craig Station, the second largest coal-fired baseload power plant in Colorado. This power station uses modern emissions control technologies to produce approximately 1300 MW, or one third of the coal-fired electricity generated in Colorado. The electricity generated at Craig Station is an important component of the Tri-State portfolio of power generation. Tri-State is a not-for-profit wholesale power supplier to 44 electric cooperatives and public power districts serving 1.5 million members throughout 200,000 square miles in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

The state of Colorado is known nationally for its snow skiing, big game hunting, fishing, hiking, sightseeing, rafting, and many other types of outdoor recreation—an industry that yields $13.2 billion in state revenue each year.1 Colorado has 53 mountain summits in excess of 14,000 feet (4267.2 m) and vital water derived from the Colorado watersheds sustains municipalities and agricultural industries in vast areas of the arid southwestern U.S. In recent years, the state’s population has grown at twice the national average. Thus, meeting increasing energy demand in Colorado must be done in a way that minimizes impacts on the natural world. In line with such values, Colowyo practices responsive resource extraction with minimized harm to the environment and a dedication to reclaiming the land to a beneficial use that is comparable to or better than the land use that existed prior to mining.

The Colowyo mine has provided coal to produce reliable, cost-effective electricity for nearly four decades while minimizing the environmental footprint.

The Colowyo mine has provided coal to produce reliable, cost-effective electricity for nearly four decades while minimizing the environmental footprint.

Colowyo is a mature mining operation composed of the active South Taylor Pit, the fully mined out West Pit undergoing reclamation, and substantial areas that have already undergone successful reclamation. Reclamation begins as soon as mining in a particular area is finished, minimizing the environmental impact and footprint of the mine at any one time.

COLOWYO’S APPROACH TO MINE RECLAMATION

Colowyo’s reclamation objective is to restore the mined area to a land use capability equal to or better than the land condition that existed prior to mining. This commitment begins with the Tri-State Board of Directors, which has made reclamation projects a priority and has dedicated the necessary resources to ensure completion at or above industry standards. The desired end results of all reclamation practices are to stabilize the soil, maintain hydrologic and vegetation resources, and restore the approximate original contour of the mined area. Ultimately, the goal is to return the mined areas to a condition that can support its original use as rangeland and the watersheds to their approximate pre-mining character. In general, the long-term appearance and usefulness of the mined area will be similar to that which would have been encountered prior to any mining.

Land currently undergoing the reclamation process at Colowyo

Land currently undergoing the reclamation process at Colowyo

Colowyo has worked cooperatively through the years with Colorado State University, the University of Idaho, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (CDRMS), the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to develop innovative reclamation techniques, including the following practices:

  • Hauling topsoil immediately from the salvage area to the final reclamation surface to preserve soil nutrients and seed sources within the topsoil;
  • Chisel-plowing the newly spread topsoil to break up soil compaction to help prepare an optimum seed bed;
  • Using a rangeland drill to plant a diverse mix of shrub/grass/forb seeds below the soil surface;
  • Seeding only in the fall so the seed lies dormant through the winter and germinates in the spring to take advantage of snow melt precipitation and the spring growing
    season; and
  • Placing discontinuous contour furrows in the topsoil when seeding to capture and hold precipitation to sub-irrigate plant root zones.

The Colowyo site has won numerous reclamation awards for outstanding professionalism and performance in conducting mining and reclamation operations, use of innovative approaches in addressing reclamation problems, successfully obtaining environmental permits approving work in several excess spoil disposal fill areas, supporting longstanding efforts to reestablish shrubs on reclaimed mined land through the testing of various seeding and planting techniques, and innovative topsoil replacement methods to enhance shrub establishment and develop beneficial and diverse wildlife habitat. In fact, since 2010, Colowyo has received six Colorado Mining Association Environmental Stewardship and Pollution Prevention awards and three Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety Excellence in Reclamation awards.

OUR RECLAMATION PROCESS

The reclamation process at Colowyo begins with the salvage of topsoil before mining commences. Topsoil salvage ensures that soil rooting material, with the associated nutrients and organic matter, is transferred back to the land after mining has ended. Thus, during reclamation much of the area that is temporarily disturbed by mining is covered by soils that provide an excellent source of plant growth media. These soils are deep, dark, and loamy with physical and chemical properties well suited for revegetation. Topsoil is either directly hauled from salvage areas or hauled from topsoil stockpiles and uniformly distributed over the entire regraded landform.

Backfilling and regrading operations, also important during reclamation, are conducted according to the reclamation plan approved as part of the CDRMS permit to mine. These operations return the surface topography to the approximate original pre-mining contours. Post-mining drainages are constructed to reestablish stable drainage basin areas, land profiles, and channel configurations. These drainages are designed to ensure the channels and associated drainage basins remain stable and are not prone to erosion. Contour ditches may be placed in drainage basins to route surface flow to rock-lined channels. These are especially important immediately after topsoil placement and seeding while vegetation is becoming established to prevent or minimize erosion of the topsoil resource.

Diverse vegetation types are selected based on the post-mine land use approved in the mining permit. Since Colowyo’s post-mine land use is rangeland, the reclamation areas are seeded with native species of grasses, forbs, and shrubs to reestablish vegetative communities such as sagebrush, juniper, grassland, and riparian. The eventual size and location of these various post-mine vegetative communities are based on factors such as surface topography, elevation, and the direction the landform is facing. Variable depths of topsoil may be replaced in targeted areas to best meet vegetative requirements. Studies have shown that establishment of some shrubs is enhanced by the placement of shallower (4–8 inches) topsoil depths. This potentially precludes the establishment of thick stands of grasses that can out-compete shrubs and forbs for soil moisture and nutrients. Conversely, thicker (12–18 inches) layers of topsoil can enhance the establishment of predominantly grassland communities.

SUCCESSFUL LAND REHABILITATION

Reclaimed mine lands are becoming an increasingly important land use component within the Colowyo mining area. Over 2400 acres of reclaimed land, which continues to expand, provides year-round habitat to local birds and both small- and big-game wildlife populations, including small mammals, birds of various species, elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. It is quite common to observe young animals and birds of every species that were born on or in the near vicinity of the reclaimed mine lands.

Native elk on Colowyo reclaimed mine land

Native elk on Colowyo reclaimed mine land

This final surface configuration provides home and shelter for all wildlife. The regrading and revegetation plan reestablishes diverse food sources, establishes escape cover, creates south-facing slopes that do not accumulate deep snow levels, which aids wintering animals, and creates small drainages and water catchment areas where stock ponds and small catchments provide necessary water.

Ultimately, there are two measures of successful mine-land reclamation: full reclamation bond release and the establishment of the targeted post-mine land use. Colowyo has received full bond release on 987 acres by achieving the regulatory-mandated standards set by the CDRM. These bond release standards include requirements for vegetative diversity, density, and production, as well as soil stability and essential hydrologic function. True vegetative success is ultimately measured by the ability of the vegetation to be self-sustaining and flourish under all natural weather conditions without the aid of any artificial intervention. All bond-released areas readily meet this stringent criterion.

The newly reclaimed rangeland is composed of the two primary subcomponents: livestock grazing or grazing land and wildlife habitat or greater sage grouse (GSG) brood-rearing habitat. GSG habitat preservation or reestablishment was of particular concern since the bird species had been identified as potentially eligible for Federal Endangered or Threatened Listing status. On 22 September 2015, the U.S. Department of the Interior determined that the GSG does not require Endangered Species Act protection, but regardless of that decision, Colowyo will continue to reestablish quality wildlife and grouse habitat. Livestock grazing has always been precluded at Colowyo on reclaimed areas to ensure that vegetation is well established. In the future, livestock grazing will be introduced to coincide with regional land use.

Colowyo will continue to reestablish grouse habitat during reclamation.

Colowyo will continue to reestablish grouse habitat during reclamation.

Indigenous wildlife, such as elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope, have already discovered the abundant food resources and secluded habitat available on the reclaimed mine areas and have established either seasonal or year-round residency. Sage, sharptail, and dusky grouse; songbirds from many diverse species; hawks, eagles, owls, and falcons; and many other bird species have already reestablish occupancy in the reclaimed areas as the vegetation has matured. Small mammals such as chipmunks, ground squirrels, cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, weasels, voles, and mice all find refuge and home in the mined reclamation areas.

Taken collectively, these many indicators point to a true reclamation success story that Colowyo is proud to be a part of and glad to share. Colowyo has always been open in sharing best reclamation practices with other coal mining companies, state and federal regulatory agencies, and academia to ensure that healthy and self-sustaining post-mine environments exist long after mining has ceased. Colowyo continues to work toward building a proud reclamation legacy for all generations to use and enjoy.

REFERENCES

  1. Colorado Office of Economic Development. (2015). Tourism & outdoor recreation, www.advancecolorado.com/key-industries/tourism-outdoor-recreation

The lead author can be reached at juan.garcia@tristategt.org

 

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Upholding Strong Environmental Values: A Key Strategy at Arch Coal

By Jim Meier
Director of Environmental Affairs, Arch Coal

Coal is an important, naturally occurring energy source that provides numerous life-enhancing benefits to the global community. Out of respect for the land that bears this valuable resource, Arch Coal is committed to superior environmental protection during each phase of the mining process. Protecting the environment carries such importance that upholding strong safety and environmental values is a key element in Arch’s four-point operating strategy. While we take pride in our industry-leading environmental performance, we are constantly striving to better ourselves, our techniques, and our processes.

Protection of the environment is integrated into every phase of the mining process, from exploration and development to active mining and reclamation. Even before beginning the permitting process, we assess—through a series of onsite studies—the potential for environmental impacts, and implement mitigation plans to minimize those effects. As a result of this dedication to environmental excellence, Arch has received numerous U.S. Department of the Interior and state environmental protection and reclamation awards. These awards recognize such diverse projects as establishing woodlands, greenlands, and wetlands, as well as natural habitat restoration and enhancement.

Arch is the most geographically diversified coal producer in the U.S., with large-scale mining operations in every major coal basin. A majority of Arch’s subsidiaries operate in either Appalachia in the eastern U.S. or the Powder River Basin (PRB) in the west. Each area has distinct terrains, habitat, and wildlife, which creates both challenges and opportunities. Thus, reclamation projects are approached differently based on the local ecosystem to ensure that mined land is restored to its original pre-mining condition or better. Often land that has been reclaimed is indistinguishable from surrounding terrain within just a few growing seasons.

APPALACHIAN RECLAMATION REQUIREMENTS SPUR INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS

Appalachia’s mountainous terrain presents unique challenges throughout the reclamation process. Surface mining in this region represents a very small percentage—less than 3%—of Arch’s overall production platform, but we take great pride in our reclamation efforts in this segment of our business. We return the land to its approximate original contour while also providing opportunities to develop areas that are attractive and useful to both the animal inhabitants and local residents.

For instance, Arch’s Mingo Logan’s Left Fork surface operation implemented reclamation practices to ensure area wildlife can thrive in a post-mining environment. This award-winning site is unique as all phases of surface mining can be observed on a single-permit area—from preparation of new mining areas through 15-year-old mature reclamation. Mingo Logan personnel worked closely with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to prepare multiple wildlife food plots across the permit area with the goal of supplementing food supply for native species during times of lean mast production (i.e., low production of acorns, other forest tree nuts, and fruit-bearing trees).

The sun rises over the eastern portion of the Left Fork reclamation area in West Virginia.

The sun rises over the eastern portion of the Left Fork reclamation area in West Virginia.

These plots were planted with newly developed “Arch Tree Mix”—a seed blend collaboration between the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) and the mine operation. This seed blend has been proven to grow quickly, preventing erosion while enhancing soil chemistry. The plots are also supplemented with chicory and turnips, to provide additional nourishment to a range of species, including deer and bears, well into the winter months. These restoration efforts have been a centerpiece of many of Mingo Logan’s Mountain Laurel’s environmental awards—including state reclamation awards and the coveted National Good Neighbor award given by the U.S. Interior Department.

Arch also has successfully created more than 200 acres of new wetlands on reclaimed lands in Central Appalachia—where wetlands are scarce. These new water sources, as well as the open fields and diverse terrain that exist after reclamation, attract and sustain an abundance of native wildlife, including rabbits, turkey, deer, fox, owls, hawks, and black bears.

WESTERN TERRAIN REQUIRES DIFFERENT RECLAMATION TECHNIQUES

The Powder River Basin (PRB) is a significant coal mining area. Arch estimates that the electricity used by one out of every six homes and businesses in the U.S. is produced from coal mined in Wyoming. It is also an important operating area for Arch Coal and its Thunder Basin Coal Company (TBCC) subsidiary. TBCC operates two surface mines in northeastern Wyoming: Black Thunder, one of the largest coal mines in the world, and Coal Creek. Although it supplies more than 11% of America’s coal supply, Black Thunder’s mine footprint comprises only 1/4000th of Wyoming’s land area.

Many wildlife species thrive on TBCC reclaimed lands and active mining areas. Reclamation efforts include returning the land to the former native habitats: grasslands, short-grass prairies, shrub-steppes, and riparian areas. Rock piles provide cover for rabbits and other small animals, which in turn attract predators. Herds of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope benefit from more plentiful water sources and vegetative cover on previously mined lands.

GREATER SAGE-GROUSE SUCCESS STORY

Arch’s successful integration of mining and reclamation with habitat protection results from going above and beyond regulatory requirements, as well as working closely with state and federal regulatory agencies and local communities. Protection and propagation of the greater sage-grouse is just one example of a positive outcome of these efforts.

TBCC, and the broader coal mining community, worked extensively for more than five years with state and local conservation groups to protect the greater sage-grouse and to ensure that coal mining in northeastern Wyoming could continue without endangering the species. The greater sage-grouse is the largest grouse in North America, found in sagebrush country in the western U.S., including Wyoming. The bird’s numbers began declining in the latter 20th century in many areas, which resulted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to list the grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

As a preventive measure, Wyoming’s governor created a task force, including members of TBCC’s operations, to develop core protection areas and to provide stipulations for development within these areas to conserve and to expand the species through habitat enhancement. Sage-grouse conservation practices put in place at Arch’s Black Thunder and Coal Creek mines include restricted hunting, mosquito control in surface water impoundments to reduce West Nile virus, management of invasive species, dust control measures, removal and marking of fences near breeding grounds, and habitat enhancement projects on both reclaimed and native lands that will not be mined. As a result of these efforts, and the efforts of others, the Department of Interior decided in September 2015 that it was not necessary to list the greater sage-grouse as an endangered species.

TBCC’S AVIAN PROTECTION AND MITIGATION PRACTICES

While supporting the natural habitat for all wildlife indigenous to the Powder River Basin, TBCC has made substantial efforts to provide particular protection for the area’s avian population on both reclaimed lands and active mining sites. These efforts have included providing adequate habitat on reclaimed lands, providing new and replacement nesting structures, rescuing and relocating birds as needed, and developing a comprehensive Avian Protection Plan (APP) for both mines.

The protection plan was prepared in accordance with the “Suggested Practices for Avian Protection on Power Lines: The State of the Art in 2006”1 developed by Edison Electric Institute’s Avian Power Line Interaction Committee. The goal was to inventory all onsite electrical structures for possible avian hazards and to outline a remediation plan to replace or retrofit problem structures.

The initial work needed to locate, evaluate, and prioritize risk for each structure was a major undertaking. All TBCC above-ground electrical structures, including power poles, portable and permanent substations, and metering points, were scrutinized and the location of each structure was recorded with a hand-held GPS device.

Once the initial evaluation was completed, a five-year plan was developed to retrofit or remove problem structures, and was then submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review and approval. Since the plan was implemented in 2011, TBCC has worked to eliminate potential hazards, including removal of power lines and poles, insulating jumper and guy wires, putting insulating caps on bushings, removing older electrical structures, and providing alternate perches near substations. Consequently, there has been only one avian fatality suspected to be related to mining operations at Black Thunder, with no incidents at Coal Creek, since mid-2010.

A key component of the protection plan provided that all TBCC employees be educated about state and federal laws protecting avian species, and additional public outreach was conducted with mine-site neighbors. Each year TBCC management meets with local ranchers whose operations are near the mine sites to communicate mining plans and to review federal laws protecting eagles and migratory birds. At these meetings, participants discuss how they can help protect birds on their property and what to do if they find an injured raptor on their ranch.

Employees also routinely work with local rehabilitation centers to rescue and return injured birds to the wild.

AVIAN PROTECTION PLAN: A SAFE HAVEN

A number of reclamation practices are used to ensure that Arch’s reclaimed habitat provides the needed forage, nesting, and cover to protect the avian population. Specific seed mixes using native cool- and warm-season grasses, shrubs, forbs, and trees species were developed to replicate the original habitat, and the reclaimed surface topography was designed to simulate the native contour. Habitat features incorporated into final reclamation practices include rock piles, brush piles, tree plantings, and tree snags to simulate native conditions.

Raptor mitigation and monitoring plans were developed and implemented at the mines in the 1980s. These plans are reviewed and revised periodically to address future mining plans and any potential impacts to nesting birds. A series of nesting platforms were erected around the mine sites to replace existing nests and to entice birds to nest on reclaimed land for the first time.

Mitigation nest sites also were constructed for golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks, great horned owls, burrowing owls, and American kestrels. The most commonly used mitigation structure is a platform placed on poles ranging from six feet to 20 feet above the ground with nesting material placed atop the platform.

Arch’s reclaimed land creates a safe haven for golden eagles and other avian species.

Arch’s reclaimed land creates a safe haven for golden eagles and other avian species.

Other types of mitigation nest sites have been constructed using natural substrate including trees, rock outcrops, banks, and the ground. Ferruginous hawk mitigation nest sites were constructed on rock piles placed in reclaimed areas.

Burrowing owls are common visitors to this area and are under consideration for listing as an endangered species. Black Thunder personnel have installed burrowing owl boxes in reclamation areas to help this struggling species survive and to provide additional nesting habitat.

There are a number of great horned owls in the mine’s vicinity. Nesting boxes have been placed next to an equipment yard where the owls have been known to use site equipment as nesting sites. Hopes are that the nesting boxes will be more attractive to the owls than the equipment, and potential disturbance due to movement will be minimized.

Tree snags also have been placed around the mine sites. Tree snags are trees growing in areas that will be mined, or ones that are dead but still standing. These trees are cut off at the ground and re-erected in reclaimed areas and around the site in advance of mining to provide attractive areas for nests and to detour birds away from active mining areas.

WATERFOWL AND SHOREBIRD MITIGATION EFFORTS

Two specific aquatic habitats provide a snapshot into Arch’s dedication to protecting waterfowl and shorebirds.

Prior to the area being mined, Reno Reservoir was located on Little Thunder Reservoir’s main stem in what is now the center of Black Thunder’s reclamation site. Pronghorn Lake was built as a replacement reservoir not far from Reno Reservoir’s original site on a combination of TBCC-owned land and U.S. Forest Service grasslands. It is a 600-acre-foot reservoir with a surface area of approximately 60 acres with several features designed to enhance wildlife habitat. The irregular shoreline supports breeding waterfowl by providing visual barriers between territorial pairs of the same species. The lake is designed to maintain a water depth of five feet or less to encourage emergent vegetation, and it is also designed to spill frequently to maintain water quality. Deeper sections of the lake provide excellent fish habitat, while the gently sloping shoreline allows safe and easy access to the water for livestock and other animals.

The lake also includes a large island, which provides a predator refuge for birds and an additional breeding ground. The island is designed so that it is not subject to excessive wind and waves or high-velocity flow, preventing shoreline erosion, which enhances vegetation growth and reduces sedimentation.

Downstream, TBCC built a 240-acre-foot reservoir with a surface area of 40 acres that serves as ultimate sediment control for a good portion of Black Thunder lands. A number of features not normally associated with a sedimentation reservoir were incorporated into the construction to enhance wetland, fishery, and waterfowl habitat, including islands that provide protected nesting habitat for various waterfowl species. Pools were incised next to the islands to increase water depth for fish during drought periods, while irregular shorelines encourage emergent vegetation and provide wind protection.

Both reservoir designs provide complementary features for waterfowl and other wildlife. Pronghorn Lake is a deeper pond, although the sediment reservoir is shallower. These two areas provide water year round for waterfowl, as well as staging areas during spring and fall migration. Recent wildlife surveys documented nearly 40 different species of shorebirds and waterfowl using these two areas.

Waterfowl surveys also indicate the lakes’ ecosystems have developed enough to support a diverse group of waterfowl including fish-eaters. In the past, these species had been just overnight visitors as there was not an adequate food source. More recently, pelicans were documented residing at these lakes for more than a month during spring migration.

Pelicans rest on an island of the Black Thunder reclamation site reservoir, an area that provides an adequate food source during spring migration.

Pelicans rest on an island of the Black Thunder reclamation site reservoir, an area that provides an adequate food source during spring migration.

Double-crested cormorants also have been observed sharing the island in Pronghorn Lake with Canada geese. Cormorant brooding success was documented at Pronghorn Lake, further evidence that the reclaimed reservoir’s ecosystem has developed enough to provide ample habitat for yet another species to rear its young.

In addition to traditional waterfowl, bald eagles, which are winter visitors to this region of Wyoming, are frequently seen on Pronghorn Lake.

Pronghorn Lake supports a diverse group of waterfowl year round.

Pronghorn Lake supports a diverse group of waterfowl year round.

THE RESULTS ARE EVIDENT

TBCC’s avian protection and mitigation practices have been quite successful in supporting the area’s native bird species. In fact, the program was awarded the 2014 Wyoming Reclamation award by the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Annual wildlife data show that the reclaimed area provides the needed avian habitat, and raptor mitigation efforts have been successful. Studies also show that the reclaimed area provides adequate habitat for the birds as both migrants and residents.

Wildlife monitoring also documented that certain species observed in the area are successfully breeding on reclaimed areas. Mitigation efforts have been successful in minimizing mining impacts on nesting raptors with the successful relocation of nests. Reclaimed water features provide ample habitat for both migrant and nesting waterfowl, and efforts to minimize impacts due to electrical hazards have been extremely effective. Both Black Thunder and Coal Creek mine sites and their reclaimed areas continue to attract avian species, including those that are sensitive to human activities, as they arrive on site and migrate through, or become residents who successfully raise their young.

Canada Geese enjoy the reclaimed land.

Canada Geese enjoy the reclaimed land.

ARCH’S ONGOING COMMITMENT

Arch is acutely aware that a core component of long-term business success is effective environmental management. From the top of the organization down, our employees are committed to adhering to the highest standards of environmental protection. While our past success is demonstrated by our award-winning reclamation efforts and achievement of final stage bond release across our operating platform, we are constantly striving to improve.

REFERENCES

  1. Avian Power Line Interaction Committee. (2006). Suggested practices for avian protection on power lines: The state of the art in 2006. Edison Electric Institute, www.dodpif.org/downloads/APLIC_2006_SuggestedPractices.pdf

For more information on Arch’s reclamation activities, please visit www.archcoal.com/environment/reclamation.aspx

 

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.
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Breaking Through the Safety Plateau: An Exclusive Interview With Bruce Watzman

By Holly Krutka
Executive Editor, Cornerstone

Bruce Watzman is the U.S. National Mining Association’s Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs, tasked with managing the association’s overall regulatory policy activities to ensure their consistency with the business needs of the association’s membership. He has principal responsibility for overseeing the public policies issues in Congress and relevant regulatory agencies that advance the health and safety performance of the U.S. mining industry and manufacturers that provide equipment to the industry.

Bruce Watzman, Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs, National Mining Association

Bruce Watzman, Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs, National Mining Association

Mr. Watzman serves on various planning committees for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. In 2007, he was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to serve as a member of the MSHA Research Advisory Committee. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Holmes Safety Association and serves on the National Executive Committee for the National Mine Rescue Contest.

Mr. Watzman is one of the principal authors of NMA’s CORESafety initiative, a safety and health management system to drive continuous improvement in the industry’s safety and health performance. He has testified before Congress on numerous occasions to discuss impediments to performance improvement.

He received an undergraduate degree from the George Washington University and a postgraduate degree from the University of Maryland.

In our Summer 2014 issue, Cornerstone published an article by Mr. Watzman that focused on the CORESafety initiative.1 Nine months later, we’re following up to learn how implementation is progressing.

Q: Coal mining is the largest constituent of U.S. mining and, as you explained in your previous Cornerstone article, is thus responsible for demonstrating leadership on health and safety. The NMA is spearheading CORESafety as part of an overall movement to improve health and safety. What is the current status of that initiative?

A: We continue to see progress in terms of the implementation of CORESafety at NMA’s participating member operations and at operations of companies not affiliated with NMA. These signs are encouraging and we would expect more companies to consider implementing CORESafety or a functionally equivalent system as they come to understand the value of managing safety and health using a systems approach, just as they use this approach to manage other vital functions across their organizations. We believe the adoption of CORESafety will continue to grow across the U.S. mining industry.

I also think in the past year we have seen the CORESafety brand become an identifiable symbol of enlightened management. As the word spreads about the purposes and use of the initiative, more companies want to be affiliated with mine safety innovations and, therefore, with initiatives like CORESafety. So I would say there is a growing reputational value to this initiative. The word is spreading.

Q: What aspects of CORESafety have been most successful? Are there any aspects of the framework or its implementation that are currently being actively modified or improved?

A: CORESafety is built on a risk management philosophy where attendant risks of activities are proactively analyzed. In this way, risks can be eliminated, to the maximum extent practical, before an activity is undertaken. This central feature is what distinguishes it from the reactive, command-and-control approach that is at the heart of the regulatory structure used by the U.S. MSHA to guide mine safety and health. Additionally, as risk analysis is implemented, safety culture is enhanced. Quite simply, by instilling a risk assessment culture across an organization, we are putting thinking before acting. It gives employees an understanding that management’s attention to the safety and health of its workforce is a core value, not an afterthought.

As with any new initiative, we recognize that CORESafety will likely have to be tweaked as companies gain experience implementing the system into their operations. It’s still too early to define what this might entail. But I think the governing philosophy here remains sound and that any modifications will be focused on streamlining its structure rather than redesigning it wholesale.

A final feature that we have found to be very advantageous is that our initiative is created to be adaptable to varied mining conditions. We didn’t want to mimic the top-down, one-size-fits-all model typical in federal regulation. We wanted the safety modules that comprise CORESafety to form an organic program, one that is flexible and practical. This feature enhances its broad acceptance and the more its safety principles are adapted, the safer our mines will become.

Q: We now know that, in terms of fatalities, 2014 was the safest year that the U.S. has ever seen. What are the factors that you believe have allowed the coal-mining sector to break through the previously observed plateau? What is the next milestone on the horizon?

A: I think there are several factors that contributed to 2014 being the safest year on record with the fewest fatalities in the history of U.S. coal mines. Certainly one contributing factor is CORESafety. We all take pride in the fact that the 16 coal mine fatalities recorded was a record. But the flip side is that 16 deaths is a stark reminder that more needs to be done to achieve the goal we all seek of zero fatalities across the entirety of the mining industry. Some point to the enhanced enforcement activity of the MSHA as being the central factor to drive the improvement. Of course enforcement plays a role. But let’s remember that we’ve been operating under the Mine Act for 45 years, so while the coal industry’s safety record has improved throughout this period, clearly enforcement alone is not going to get us to where we need to be. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Industry would have achieved its long-sought goal of zero fatalities because enforcement today is as strict as it has ever been.

U.S. coal mining fatalities per year, 1970–2014

U.S. coal mining fatalities per year, 1970–2014

In developing and embracing CORESafety, NMA’s leadership recognized the limitations of the reactive enforcement model at the heart of the Mine Act. We understood that MSHA’s implementation of this model would not, in and of itself, get the industry to zero fatalities—the goal we’re still working towards.

I would say the next milestone is to achieve a critical mass of industry acceptance. We’re on our way, but we’re not there yet.

Q: How will the NMA work to make further progress toward the ultimate goal of an industry with zero fatalities? What do you see as the most significant obstacle to reaching this goal?

A: As noted previously, we continue to work with companies to provide tools and resources to implement CORESafety, but it doesn’t stop there. CORESafety is unlike any other safety and health management system in U.S. industry in that the NMA leadership made a conscious decision to make all of the tools and resources available to all in the mining community free of charge.

CORESafety hinges on identifying hazards proactively

CORESafety hinges on identifying hazards proactively

Quite simply, the goal was to drive improvement across the mining sector. And we are encouraged that companies outside of NMA, both domestic and international, are availing themselves of these resources to drive continuous performance improvement across their operations too.

Implementing CORESafety depends on changing or expanding one’s understanding of how we have managed safety and health historically, and then changing the command-and-control reactive model for a proactive, risk management approach. This is one of the first hurdles that must be overcome and will remain an obstacle as companies come to learn more and invest in this new, voluntary approach.

The other obstacle is co-managing MSHA’s compliance approach along with the CORESafety model. Unfortunately, these twin objectives are not entirely complementary. In some quarters, it remains a challenge to overcome the mindset that compliance with MSHA’s regulatory requirements is all one must do to provide a safe workplace. That is obviously necessary, but it is not sufficient.

CORESafety is based on structured systematic improvements, rather than one-by-one improvements.

CORESafety is based on structured systematic improvements, rather than one-by-one improvements.

Q: Can you provide examples of how you are working with other industries and the coal producers abroad to share experiences and lessons learned?

A: One of the first things we did when our leadership directed us to develop a new model to drive continuous performance improvement was talk to those who were already moving beyond simple regulatory compliance. So we visited with companies, and associations representing companies, that had already embarked upon this safety journey to learn from their experience. In this way, we benefited from the lessons that had already been learned by others.

Sharing knowledge and lessons learned is an important component of driving continuous improvements in coal mining health and safety.

Sharing knowledge and lessons learned is an important component of driving continuous improvements in coal mining health and safety.

We continue to dialogue with representatives from the chemical, nuclear, and oil and gas industries who share our goal—continuous safety performance improvement. These discussions have reinforced the belief that there are many positive initiatives underway across industry both in the U.S. and internationally and that communicating and sharing these accrues benefit to all. Working with international groups like World Coal Association and the International Council on Mining and Metals, we have been able to bring the proactive tools to U.S. mining companies that are already spreading worker safety and health improvement across the globe.

REFERENCES

  1. Watzman, B. (2014). CORESafety®: A system to overcome the plateau in U.S. mine safety and health management. Cornerstone, 2(2), 53–56.

 

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.
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Synergetic Technologies for Coal and Gas Extraction in China

By Yuan Liang
Academician, Chinese Academy of Engineering
President, National Coal Mining
Engineering Technology Research Institute
Deputy General Manager, Huainan Mining Group

China is rich in coal-bed methane (CBM) resources. The cumulative proven geologic CBM reserves are 102.3 billion m3 and the recoverable reserves are about 47 billion m3. The projected amount of CBM at depths shallower than 2000 m is 36.8 trillion m3, which ranks third in the world.1

CBM offers several important functions that are discussed in this article. CBM can exit a coal seam through two main pathways: 1) drilling directly into the coal seam or gas-rich areas, connecting the drilled areas to a pipeline, extracting the CBM to grade level, and then utilizing the CBM as a clean fuel; or 2) venting CBM to the atmosphere. Active extraction can reduce the concentration of CBM that is present during coal mining, which is an important measure to prevent accidental explosions and outbursts of coal and gas. When extracted, CBM is a value-added byproduct of coal mining. There are two main methods of active extraction: underground extraction and surface extraction. The selection of which method is most appropriate is based on the coal seam and regional conditions.

Although CBM poses a potential hazard during the process of coal mining, once extracted it is a useful energy resource that can be used in many industries.

Although CBM poses a potential hazard during the process of coal mining, once extracted it is a useful energy resource that can be used in many industries.

China’s extraction and utilization volumes of CBM in 2013 were 15.6 billion m³ and 6.6 billion m³, which were 10.6% and 13.8% higher, respectively, than the volumes in 2012. The extraction and utilization volumes of underground CBM were 12.6 billion m³ and 4.3 billion m³, an increase of 10.5% and 13.2%, respectively, compared to 2012. The production and utilization volumes of surface CBM were 3.0 billion m³ and 2.3 billion m³, up by 11.1% and 15%, respectively, compared to 2012. With increased support as of 2014 (i.e., policy, funding, subsidies, etc.) for CBM extraction and utilization, as well as the expansion of budget investment by the central government, the utilization volume of coal-bed gas is expected to double.

There are several reasons China is developing its CBM resources. For instance, CBM is a source of clean energy and can be used as a fuel or raw material in many industries. Even more importantly, because CBM is combustible, its extraction is necessary to prevent mining accidents and ensure safe mining conditions. In addition, this technology has recently become even more practical due to breakthroughs in extraction technologies, leading to increases in production.

Most coal mines in China are naturally rich in CBM. More than 70% of the key state-owned coal mines are rich in coal and CBM. Most of the seams supplying China’s state-owned coal mines are also characterized by low gas permeability (<1 mD). For reference, the permeability of coal mines globally generally falls between 0.002 and 16.17 mD. Mines with permeability of less than 0.10 mD account for 35% of China’s relevant state-owned, CBM-rich coal mines; those between 0.1 and 1.0 mD account for 37%; those more than 1.0 mD account for 28%; very few are greater than 10 mD.2,3 Gas extraction under low-permeability conditions is a challenge that several countries with such coal seams are facing.

Today, China’s CBM extraction technology for surface wells is not yet mature, and this has restricted the majority of domestic surface CBM extraction for years.2,3 The consumption of China’s coal resources is expected to increase significantly over the next 20 years, and will account for 53% of total global coal consumption by 2030. Simultaneous extraction of coal and CBM is set to become the principal focus of development in underground gas extraction in the future.2,3

Surface CBM extraction is gaining traction in China.

Surface CBM extraction is gaining traction in China.

Key Extraction Technical Systems

The recent rapid technological advancement throughout China’s coal industry has included some major technical innovations related to underground CBM extraction. The mining approach used in the past, where coal was mined from the top to the bottom of the coal seam, is no longer the dominant approach. Instead, a coal bed with the optimal conditions is selected for initial mining; by strategically choosing the initial mining location, the upper and lower coal and rock strata will swell and deform, which increases gas permeability throughout the coal bed. This change in permeability allows the CBM to move more freely and pressure in the seam is reduced as the CBM is extracted.

Similarly, the traditional practice of allowing the protective layer of the CBM to vent to the atmosphere is being replaced with a proactive, high-intensity (i.e., driven by large pumps), controlled CBM extraction. This approach realizes the scientifically based concepts of initial pressure relief and extraction of underground CBM as well as simultaneous extraction of coal and CBM. For coal beds that are not endowed with the protective layer of CBM a different approach is taken. At such sites, mining occurs via special extraction roadways (i.e., large tunnels in the mine) where pressure reliefs are constructed on the coal-bed roofs and floors. Then, boreholes are crossed over large areas, allowing gas extraction to occur. With this level of extraction, the coal mining activities undertaken at CBM-rich gas coal beds can be safely carried out under low CBM conditions (because the CBM is constantly being removed).

In the engineering practice of underground simultaneous extraction of coal and gas, four key technologies have recently been developed: gob-side entry retaining and comprehensive CBM control (including technology for construction of a gob-side entry retaining wall); improved filling materials preparation and pumping processes; stability control technologies for surrounding rocks for the gob-side entry retaining wall; and comprehensive control of CBM for gob-side entry retaining walls.

Based on China’s current coal mining situation, where there is a constant deepening of well fields in some mine areas with complex geological conditions, further development and deployment of simultaneous extraction of coal and CBM is inevitable. Research and development focused on the four key technologies listed above can advance the state-of-the-art of underground simultaneous extraction of coal and CBM.

Current Status and Challenges for Key Technologies

Underground Gas Extraction

Since 1938, when the Longfeng Mine of the Fushun Mining Bureau used pumps for gob CBM extraction for the first time, many other approaches to CBM extraction (e.g., gob, adjacent seam, coal mine bed) have been researched and tested successfully based on the respective mining conditions throughout China. Examples include parallel boreholes, cross-hole arrangements, crossing grid boreholes, crossing boreholes, etc. Meanwhile, a complete set of pressure-relief antireflective technologies including deep-hole presplitting blasting, hydraulic cutting, hydraulic fracturing, and hydraulic drilling (expanding) hole, have been researched and developed successfully. These methods are widely used in coal beds with a buried depth of 1000 m or more.

Coal in the Jincheng area in Shanxi is primarily found in single seams that are CBM rich and where the conditions for coal-seam CBM occurrence are characterized by developed fractures and good permeability. In such mines, conditions are favorable for both surface and underground CBM extraction. Therefore, the combination of surface and underground mining to carry out linkage extraction—that is, the process and supporting technologies for “three-stage three-dimensional gas extraction” (the three stages being mine planning, development preparation, and production)—is referred to as the “Jincheng Mode”.

Mines characterized by low permeability and complex geological structures, for instance, those found in the Huainan mining area, are CBM rich and face serious safety risks associated with coal seam outbursts. Production and safety can be seriously affected by such disasters. Using the previously described traditional gas extraction techniques presents problems for such mines. For example, large CBM extraction roadways are needed as well as large numbers of boreholes; the costs are high and the extraction cycles long. Moreover, with mines in China advancing to greater depths, there is additional concern because traditional roadway CBM extraction is not applicable for mines that are 1000 m or more in depth. Therefore, there is an urgent need to break through the technical bottleneck related to CBM extraction and ensure safety during deep underground coal mining in low-permeability seams. To advance beyond this bottleneck, the industry must take a comprehensive approach to CBM control, coal mining, roadway support, temperature and pressure control of the coal bed during surface extraction, and other safety and technical difficulties. This approach should be based on mining with CBM pressure-relief technologies. In this way the simultaneous and complementary CBM extraction and coal mining can be realized.

Key Technologies for Simultaneous Coal and CBM Extraction

Simultaneous coal and gas extraction is a process with several important components. For instance, the seam is stabilized by adopting gob-side entry retaining walls. Traditional U-shaped ventilation patterns are turned into Y-shaped ones. Boreholes are drilled in the gob-side entry retaining wall to continuously extract CBM from the gob as well as the coal beds with outburst risk that are not yet being mined. This approach effectively replaces the traditional technology of extracting the pressure-released seam gas in multiple rock roadways in the mining area with gob-side entry retaining walls, so as to realize safe and efficient simultaneous extraction of coal and CBM without pillars. A schematic diagram for gas extraction with boreholes drilled in the gob-side entry retaining wall (without pillars) is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Schematic diagram for gas extraction through boreholes drilled in the gob-side entry retaining wall

Figure 1. Schematic diagram for gas extraction through boreholes drilled in the gob-side entry retaining wall

Since 2005, development efforts have led to breakthroughs in the key technologies for underground CBM extraction as well as simultaneous coal and CBM extraction in the Huainan Mine Area. A number of innovative research results were obtained that provided effective support for high yield and efficiency; production capacity rose significantly, while the fatality rate per million tonnes declined to historic lows. For instance, mine gas extraction capacity was increased from 10 million m³/yr to 500 million m³/yr, and the rate of CBM utilization rose from 3% to 70%. The CBM control technologies, management, and innovations from the Huainan Mine Area had a major impact on the industry: They formed the basis for a regional gas control technology referred to as the “Huainan Mode”, which is characterized by pressure relief of protective CBM through a proactive, high-intensity, controlled approach.

The Direction of Future Development

Underground Gas Extraction

The integration of surface and underground CBM extraction to make the best use of both technologies is the future of CBM extraction. Relying on underground projects alone will not provide sufficient CBM extraction to relieve pressure in underground multiseams, so there is a pressing need for the introduction of surface CBM extraction as well. By drilling for extraction toward the middle of the working surface near the return airway, pressure-released CBM in the mining area and gob CBM can be extracted simultaneously, achieving “dual-purpose mining”.

Similarly, extraction of the initial layer of CBM encountered in the early stages of underground mining combined with surface extraction can significantly enhance safety. For example, the main coal seam in the Huainan Mine Area is characterized by risk of outbursts and low permeability, making pre-extraction of CBM difficult. Thus the protective seam (i.e., the seam with the least safety risks associated with CBM) is mined first as a regional outburst-prevention measure. Before the CBM is actually recovered, drilling occurs between the surface and each overlying pressure-relief seam in advance. In other words, the safest seam is mined first and is used as a path to remove CBM from neighboring coal seams. This approach makes it possible to implement whole-seam simultaneous pressure-relief CBM extraction through a network of extraction pipelines. The combination of the “Huainan Mode” and the “Jincheng Mode” will be the main direction of future development in China’s underground gas extraction in the future. Figure 2 illustrates the theory of surface and underground mining with gas extraction.

Figure 2. Schematic diagram of three-dimensional extraction of surface and underground mines

Figure 2. Schematic diagram of three-dimensional extraction of surface and underground mines

Simultaneous Coal and CBM Extraction

In recent years, simultaneous coal and gas extraction technology has been applied successfully at more than 300 working surfaces in the Huainan-Huaibei Mining Area by the Pingdingshan Coal Group, Shanxi Coking Coal Group, and Jincheng Coal Group, which together constitute an annual coal production capacity of nearly 2.1 billion tonnes. Meanwhile, with working surface conditions such as thick, soft compound roofs, a likelihood of major mining disturbances, and direct covering of thick tight roofs, key research is being successfully carried out on pillar-less simultaneous coal mining and CBM extraction under various complex conditions. This has become the dominant technology for CBM control at mines that are rich in CBM and where coal and gas outbursts are likely in China. Therefore, this technology is playing an important role in the continuous improvement of production safety in China’s coal mines; the impact is particularly evident when considering the sharp decline in the number of coal gas accidents and related fatalities. I suggest the development of CBM extraction should be focused on the following:

1) Wall construction technology for pillar-less gob-side entry retaining walls. Future wall construction technologies for pillar-less gob-side entry retaining walls will gradually eliminate construction methods that lead to unacceptable safety conditions, high labor intensity, and low production efficiency. Mechanization is the main direction for future construction of gob-side entry retaining walls. However, it has not yet been possible to realize the construction of walls with mechanized formwork as a large-scale, standardized, fully integrated approach in China. In addition, there are some considerable technical challenges that need to be overcome in formwork-filling machinery equipment for thin coal seams, sharply inclined coal seams, and fully mechanized top-coal caving. To overcome these challenges, the main development direction for future wall construction technologies is adherence to mechanized filling, and to strive for breakthroughs in large-scale, standardized, and fully integrated equipment.

2) Preparation and pumping process of filling material in pillar-less gob-side entry retaining walls. With the expansion of mines in China, the disadvantages of water-based filling materials, such as low strength and susceptibility to damage from chemical conversion due to exposure to air, will become increasingly apparent. Such concerns will lead to a gradual expansion in the application of paste concrete filling materials, the high strength of which will gradually emerge as an advantage in the roadways of deep mines. One of the principles in the selection of paste concrete filling material is to use locally produced materials whenever possible. Traditional fine-aggregate paste filling materials are high in cost and low in strength, so the rate at which such materials are used will gradually decline, while coarse-aggregate waste mineral materials, such as crushed gangue, machine-made sand, and coal ash, will become the focus for development in the area of filling materials.

At the same time, pumping equipment must also undergo changes. Current pumping processes are affected by mine ventilation, causing considerable dust to rise, which can pollute the underground work environment. In addition, labor intensity is high when workers must transport all mixing materials needed for filling the gob area underground within the mine. These issues are compounded by the pumping distances and workability of materials; pipeline clogging often occurs, impacting production. Therefore, the future direction of development in pumping equipment is to achieve a seamless flow of mechanized transporting, mixing, and pumping of dry materials (e.g., lime, components for concrete, etc.) underground. Bale breakers, drum-belt conveyors, cleaning columns, and other equipment have emerged as a result of this trend.

3) Controlling the stability of the rock surrounding the gob-side entry retaining wall. The stability control technology for the rock surrounding the gob-side entry retaining wall should be based on science and quantitative design. Rock surrounding the roadway should be scientifically and dynamically classified during the initial mine design stage. During the mine design stage, introducing the support of expert systems and design programs into the design process and with specific adherence in the adoption of timbering materials (supporting the floor and roof of the coal mine) such as high-strength, high-resistance, highly supportive (i.e., high pre-tension), and high-stiffness anchor bolts (cables) will enhance the quality and strength of the timbering. During the construction stage, dynamic monitoring systems should be introduced to check for any deformation in the rock surrounding the roadway. Implementation of a dynamic roadway design process with constantly improving parameter designs should follow scientifically accepted methods. Supplementation and adjustment of timbering strength should be carried out in a timely manner depending on the dynamic changes in the surrounding rock conditions, so as to improve timbering efficiency.

4) Comprehensive control of CBM in gob-side entry retaining walls. Currently, restricted by the technical level of equipment manufacturing in China, large-diameter, long borehole CBM extraction has yet to be applied on a large scale. By using large-diameter, long boreholes, the number of boreholes can be greatly reduced, minimizing costs and maximizing extraction efficiency. The promotion and application of this technology is the trend for comprehensive control of CBM in gob-side entry retaining walls. Furthermore, making full use of the unique advantages of gob-side entry retaining walls with regard to extraction time and space, increasing gas extraction intensity in gob-side entry retaining, mutually integrating surface mine extraction with underground mine extraction, and leveraging the pressure-relieving effects of protective seam mining to penetrate the protective seams through surface drilling can greatly enhance the extraction efficiency of a single mine.

Conclusion

Technologies for underground CBM extraction and simultaneous coal and gas extraction, as part of a set of complex theoretical and technical systems, are the key and dominant technologies for CBM control in China. They are also an important part of China’s unconventional natural gas development. Even after more than 10 years of development and improvement, such technologies still face a situation where theory and fundamental understanding lags behind the applied work. The economic and social benefits gained from the breakthroughs in technologies of underground CBM extraction in China have been evident even in the early stages of research and application. However, faced with a future of constant expansion of mines, CBM extraction will become even more important. Therefore, increasing the amount of theoretical research work on technologies for underground gas extraction and simultaneous coal and gas extraction, particularly for related theoretical issues of pressure relief and enhancing permeability, will be the major areas of work going forward. Physical and numerical simulations of similar materials in the laboratory should be vigorously developed. Large scientific experimental facilities should be established to enhance overall theoretical research levels for simultaneous coal and gas extraction, to lay a solid foundation for scientific mining.

 

References

  1. China Chemical Network. (2009, 28 September). Current status of the development of coal bed gas in China, www.sxcoal.com/gas/725750/articlenew.html (in Chinese)
  2. Yuan, L. (2008). Simultaneous coal and gas extraction theory and practice in pillar-less multi-seams of low permeability. Beijing: China Coal Industry Publishing House. (in Chinese)
  3. Yuan, L. (2004). Gas extraction theory and technology in soft multiple coal seams of low permeability. Beijing: China Coal Industry Publishing House. (in Chinese)
  4. Zhou, S., & Lin, B. (1999). Coal seam gas occurrence and flow theory. Beijing: China Coal Industry Publishing House. (in Chinese)
  5. Yuan, L. (2008). Technology of simultaneous coal and gas extraction with boreholes drilled in retained roadway. Journal of Coal Science & Engineering, 33(8), 898–902. (in Chinese)
  6. Yuan, L. (2008). Key technology for simultaneous coal and gas extraction in low permeability, high gas content coal seam cluster under pillar-less gob-side entry retained with Y type ventilation. Journal of China Coal Society, 34(6), 9–13. (in Chinese)

 

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.

Evaluating Safety and Health in Australia’s Mining Sector

By Melanie Stutsel
Director of Health, Safety, Environment, and Community,
Minerals Council of Australia

Australia’s mining sector seeks to be a global leader in safety and health, but a recent spike in accidents has underlined the need to continue improving. The industry is now exploring new ways of thinking about safety to reach its ultimate goal: zero harm.

By definition, a danger is an immediate threat to people, property, or the environment, where an appropriate response is necessary to avoid the threat. A danger exists when no protective measures are in place. A hazard can be defined as something that could pose a threat if appropriate action is not taken. To ensure safety, a hazard must be assessed for risk and for ways of eliminating or minimizing that risk. Although the minerals industry accepts that inherent hazards exist, there is no reason for working in the industry to be dangerous. Recognizing this distinction is important. It helps in the identification of effective strategies and actions needed to deal with the risks associated with mining.

The traditional ways of thinking about safety may not be the best approach for Australia’s mining sector.

The traditional ways of thinking about safety may not be the best approach for Australia’s mining sector.

Mining, and particularly underground mining, can be a hazardous venture. Coal miners face many risks on the job, including cave-ins or fall of ground, gas explosions, vehicle or mobile equipment collisions or crushing, chemical exposure, electrocution, and fires. To our great sorrow, serious accidents have occurred and some have led to loss of life. Whatever its other priorities, the mining industry’s primary goal must always be safety.

Mine site experience suggests the risks associated with mining can be managed by adopting a hierarchy of controls. The most effective starting point is to remove the hazard. If this cannot be done, management and workers must methodically progress through alternative controls, such as improved engineering solutions, better administration and management of the workforce and work, and the deployment of personal protective equipment.

More broadly, there is a need to constantly re-examine the presumptions that underpin safety efforts. For example, new research underway, but not yet published, has indicated that the traditional management of near misses and injury may not necessarily remove risks that could lead to fatalities. This research represents a challenge to almost a century of understanding in occupational health and safety (OHS). The industry might not be best served by continuing to work in accordance with long-standing risk management models because they are proving to be inaccurate in predicting if a fatality will occur.

The Australian industry agrees there is a need to refocus our energy and resources. The industry’s strong conviction is that all work-related fatalities, injuries, and diseases are preventable.

No task is so important that it cannot be done safely.

All hazards can be identified and their risk managed. Ultimately, everyone has a responsibility for the safety and health of themselves and their coworkers.

Figure 1. Fatalities in the Australian minerals industry

Figure 1. Fatalities in the Australian minerals industry

The Safety Philosophy of the Australia Mining Industry

The starting point for the Australian minerals industry, in Australia or wherever Australian companies operate, is a commitment to health and safety values and to world-leading performance. For the minerals industry, the health and safety of its workforce is at the forefront of all decisions, so that everyone who goes to work in the industry returns home safely. The ultimate goal is zero harm for employees and local communities.

To achieve this goal, increased effort is needed, based on leadership, systems, people, culture, and behavior. These efforts must be aided by robust and clear regulation. The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), as the peak representative body for the minerals industry in Australia, supports the promotion of

  • A world-leading health and safety culture
  • A regulatory policy framework that encourages and fosters a relationship of transparent, open, and honest communication among all stakeholders
  • Adequate resources across the industry, including human resources, for establishing and maintaining world-leading performance and outcomes
  • Stakeholders working together in a cooperative environment to make the workplace safe and healthy
  • Clear accountabilities and responsibilities assigned for everything under a worker’s control
  • Systems and processes that build continuous improvement in OHS performance and regulation, with reliable information, data, auditing, and benchmarking

This dedication to health and safety has resulted in an improvement in the number of fatalities in the Australian minerals industry over recent decades—from a high of 33 in 1996-97 to a low of two in 2012-13. Despite this generally improving trend, there has been a recent sharp spike in fatalities: 17 reported since June 2013.

Such tragedy demands close examination. Fatalities in the industry typically appear to follow a chaotic, nonlinear trajectory. There is no correlation across the range of factors that anecdotally are considered causation factors—the age or experience of the worker, time of day of the incident, or the industry sector or jurisdiction in which the incident occurred.

Of the 89 fatalities in the Australian minerals industry between 2003-04 and 2012-13, the MCA has observed that

  • The majority of fatalities occurred in the major mining states (Western Australia: 36%, Queensland: 26%, New South Wales: 13.5%) with a disproportional number, based on the workforce size, occurring in South Australia: 13.5 %.
  • The majority of fatalities occurred in the underground metalliferous sector (26% of fatalities from 13.5% of the total industry workforce) and open-cut metalliferous sector (22% of fatalities from 39.5% of the total industry workforce).
  • Underground coal mining was responsible for 9% of fatalities (7.5% workforce) and open-cut coal was responsible for 7% fatalities (17.5% workforce).
  • 55% of fatalities were associated with contractors; 45% were direct employees.
  • The mechanism of fatality was common across different mining sectors—most frequently mobile equipment (37%), followed by struck/crush (29%), falls (17%), geotechnical (9%), explosion/fire (7%), and electrocution (1%).
  • Mechanisms specific to mining and other earth-moving or construction-based industries typically presented a small proportion of fatalities.

A Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum analysis of fatalities in Western Australia over the same period found that in 62% of cases onsite procedures were not complied with, and in another 27% no procedures were in place. Further, 44% of the fatal accidents involved supervisors in their first 12 months on the job.1

Industry-wide sharing of lessons learned through reports and meetings can be an important part of continuously reinforcing a culture of safety.

Industry-wide sharing of lessons learned through reports and meetings can be an important part of continuously reinforcing a culture of safety.

Lessons Learned

In its endeavor to achieve the zero-harm goal, the Australian minerals industry continually reviews incidents and practices. Lessons learned are shared between companies on a regular basis. From such reviews and exchanges there is a broad consensus among companies that the following factors are critically important:

  • The commitment of the organization, particularly senior management, to the achievement of a high standard of safety
  • The demonstration of this commitment through communication, consistent decision-making, reward and approval systems, allocation of resources to training, and an attentive management attitude
  • Effective communication between all parts of the organization, based on trust, openness, mutual respect, and an acknowledgment that safety is a shared responsibility
  • Communication and maintenance of a shared view of risks and standards of acceptable behavior
  • Open-minded learning from experience
  • Ownership and acceptance of the need for health and safety controls. This typically requires a participative approach to the development of control and a cooperative, nonconfrontational approach to securing adherence to agreed procedures and practices.

It is also broadly agreed that it is necessary to continuously reinforce a culture of safety by ensuring consistent management response to incidents, feedback on unsafe/unacceptable behaviors, and consistent decisions on resourcing. Persistence and consistency are vital.

Despite these efforts, there is a perception among some stakeholders that the industry has reached a plateau on its journey toward achieving zero harm, that there is a disconnect between the industry’s vision of zero harm and its performance today.

The Australian minerals industry maintains that bridging this gap requires a focus on tangible outcomes and strategies for delivering those outcomes as well as a strategy for delivering change across:

  • Safety leadership
  • Integration of safety and operations
  • Competence
  • Risk management
  • Safety culture
  • Safety technology

For example, given the predominance of fatalities involving mobile equipment, MCA member companies have determined that will be a priority area for 2014. Analysis will focus on reviewing members’ principal hazard management plans for mobile equipment and related work procedures to identify controls and behavioral requirements, and to analyze these for consistency and functionality.

Challenging Paradigms

The lack of clear, identifiable causes for an increase in fatal incidents requires the industry to re-examine traditional approaches to safety.

Initiatives to introduce a culture of safety at the earliest point of entry to the industry have been undertaken—such as the development of the Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre in 1998, which provides health and safety education for undergraduate mining engineers at Australian universities. However, the persistence of safety incidents suggests still more reflection and action is needed.

To this end, the minerals industry has commissioned a re-examination of existing concepts around safety management. Globally, much of the contemporary thinking on evaluating work-related injury and illness originates from two seminal pieces of work: Herbert Heinrich’s 1931 “accident triangle”, which observed proportions of major injury (the top of the triangle) to minor injuries (the middle) to incidents (the base) in a ratio of 1:29:300. This work was then taken and applied comprehensively across a range of industries by Frank E. Bird in 1969, when he developed a related triangle based on the ratio of lost-time injuries to medical/first-aid treatments to equipment damage to near misses at 1:10:30:600 (Figure 2).2 Based on both triangles, safety efforts have been generally focused on the near misses and minor injuries at the base to reduce the overall size of the triangle, and thus the fatalities or serious accidents represented at the top.

Figure 2. Heinrich’s (top) and Bird’s (bottom) accident triangles

Figure 2. Heinrich’s (top) and Bird’s (bottom) accident triangles2

However, recent preliminary research (not yet published) led by Matthew Thomas and Tony Pooley of the University of South Australia suggests that Bird’s ratios may be misleading. Although this research requires much more data, the early results indicate that there are more recorded minor injuries in the middle sections of the triangle (minor injuries) than at the base (incidents). This may have implications for judging the efficacy of actions aimed at the base that might be presumed to also contribute to reducing incidents in the middle or at the apex.

Explanations for this disparity, which vary from improving data quality in recent years to the success of the earlier initiatives based upon the original paradigm in minimizing near-miss incidents, may mean that Bird’s model will not continue to be the best/most appropriate for the industry in the long term. Further research is essential to determine the best course of action for understanding relationships between injury classifications. If the traditional triangle approaches have limitations, then industry must look more broadly to potential sources of risk.

Other Safety Considerations

The management of fatigue is an important component in the overall approach to fitness for work. Other important concerns include the management of alcohol and other drugs and the management of medical conditions. These components are often grouped under the term “fitness for work”. All are recognized potential safety and health risk factors that must be managed and controlled as part of the duty-of-care responsibilities of the employer and the employees.

Industry guidance on fatigue management has shown that operations should have four fundamental processes in place to support fatigue management strategies:

  1. Policy: A document formally outlining the approach, commitment, and accountability in which individual stake-holders are named, including a requirement for internal and external auditing processes
  2. Training: A training and education program to facilitate the identification of the externally observable signs as well as physical symptoms of fatigue and to adopt coping strategies
    and mechanisms within and outside the workplace
  3. Tracking Incidents: A program to track all incidents, accidents, and near misses including the time, day of roster, hours of wakefulness, and sleep length to determine the role of the roster and sleep
  4. Support: Medical and well-being support that includes diagnosis of sleep disorders, treatment of sleep problems, and, where necessary, referrals to general practitioners, sleep psychologists, counsellors, or sleep clinics

Although many industries have tried for some time to manage the specific issue of fatigue in a workplace context, it is clear that multiple factors drive fatigue-related outcomes (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. The schematic illustrates the many factors that can impact an individual’s sleep, leading to fatigue.

Figure 3. The schematic illustrates the many factors that can impact an individual’s sleep, leading to fatigue.

Importantly, recent research has challenged previous assumptions that fatigue was simply the product of work and sleep patterns. It is now well understood that there is a critical link between mental health issues, fatigue, and drug and alcohol use, all of which are contributing factors to injury in the workplace. For this reason, mental health issues and their impact on workplace safety and productivity is an issue of growing prominence for the Australian mining industry. Prevention is the key and workplaces are ideally suited to address mental health issues because they provide an environment where employees are accustomed to conversations relating to fitness for work, formalized processes for training and engagement are in place, and there is a general culture of teammate support.

Based on Australian community data it is estimated:3

  • One in five people in Australia experience a mental health issue in a 12-month period.
  • Productivity losses linked to mental health issues in the coal mining industry in New South Wales alone range from AUD288 million to AUD429 million per year.

As noted by the New South Wales Minerals Council Chief Executive Officer, Stephen Galilee: “While research suggests mental health issues in our industry are no more prevalent
than in the community more broadly, we recognize that the nature and composition of our workforce means implementing pro-active measures at industry level can make a real impact.”4

To increase knowledge about the extent and impacts of mental health issues in the coal industry, the Australian Coal Industry Research Program (ACARP) is funding a series of research works by the University of Newcastle and the Hunter Institute of Mental Health. The research project is designed in two stages. First, it aims to identify the patterns of mental health issues among coal industry employees, the factors associated with these issues, and the impact on an employee’s health, workplace safety, and productivity. There is some evidence of a relationship between mental illness and reduced productivity and injury at work. However, to date no methodologically sound studies have been conducted on these issues in the Australian coal mining industry.

The second part is to develop a roadmap for industry’s response. This requires identifying gaps in understanding as well as management strategies. The goal is to mirror the advances in workplace health and safety and in productivity adopted by the Australian coal industry over the past two decades. This proposal has the potential for international recognition and would be well positioned in the suite of coal-mining-related services and policies exemplified as best practice at the international level.

International Engagement

Sharing knowledge and insights on safety is vital for creating a safe industry. An incident at one company is a matter for all. Regulators conduct required investigations, but, beyond that, industry itself actively shares details and lessons from incidents to help improve performance. Such sharing should be a goal for the mining industry globally as well.

Through internationally focused organizations such as the World Coal Association and the International Council of Mines and Metals (ICMM), Australian companies engage on global developments and work to develop the capacity to minimize risk and eliminate fatalities.

Australia has also lent its safety knowledge to other nations, such as a five-year pilot program applying Australian technology and expertise to a Chinese underground coal mine. It is anticipated that the Chinese mine will be a safety and health model for China’s mining industry.

The challenge across the industry is to be willing to shift paradigms, to develop capacity for a new type of leadership based on personal values and care for others, and to collaborate extensively within and beyond the sector.

As identified by the ICMM at their landmark Health and Safety Conference held in Santiago in 2012, the challenge to ensuring the well-being of employees, contractors, their families, and their communities is to “put people first”.5 The Australian mining industry strives to operate to this standard, to continuously improve, and to serve as a model globally.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Western Australia Department of Mines and Petroleum. (2013, October). DMP study to help combat mining fatalities and injuries. DMP Industry Updates Newsletter. Perth, Australia. www.dmp.wa.gov.au/enews/oct13/
  2. O’Neill, S., et al. (2013). Issues in the measurement and reporting of work health and safety performance: A review. Macquarie University and the International Governance and Performance Research Centre report for Safe Work Australia, the Safety Institute of Australian the Certified Practicing Accountants of Australian, November.
  3. University of Newcastle and the Hunter Institute for Mental Health. (2012, May). Mental health and the NSW minerals industry. Sydney, Australia. www.himh.org.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/4945/Mental-Health-in-Mining.pdf
  4. NSW mining supporting mental health in the resources industry. (2014, 17 March). Mining Australia, www.miningaustralia.com.au/news/nsw-mining-supporting-mental-health-in-the-resourc
  5. International Chamber of Mines and Metals. (2012, November). 2012 Health and Safety Conference. London, United Kingdom. www.icmm.com/publications/health-and-safety-conference-report

 

The author can be reached at Melanie.Stutsel@minerals.org.au.

 

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.

Commitment to Safety

By Milton Catelin
Chief Executive, World Coal Association

Nothing is more important to the coal industry than ensuring our people return home safely at the end of the working day. A combination of rigorous safety processes, employee training, new technologies, and better communication has led to significant improvements in safety in coal mining globally. The articles in this issue of Cornerstone, including from a number of WCA members, demonstrate the level of commitment to improving safety performance globally.

Working across the global industry to share knowledge about safe work practices is an important part of improving safety.

Working across the global industry to share knowledge about safe work practices is an important part of improving safety.

However, the pursuit of safety is a continual process. The recent accident at the Soma mine in Turkey was a tragic reminder of the need for constant vigilance on safety and the vital importance of the highest safety standards and practices across all mining operations.

The members of the WCA are committed to working across the industry at a global level to share our knowledge about safe work practices and to encourage all companies in the coal industry to set the same high standards. We will be contacting the Turkish government to offer our support to ensure that lessons are learned from this disaster and to share the knowledge and expertise of our members.

Safety in Our Operations

As leaders of the global coal industry, WCA members are expected to operate with the highest standards when it comes to ensuring the safety of our workers. All WCA members are expected to deploy state-of-the-art safety systems and to share knowledge, wherever possible, and work cooperatively to help make that happen.

WCA members place four core components at the heart of ensuring workplaces are as safe as possible:

  • Implement a culture of risk management—identifying hazards, undertaking risk assessments, and implementing controls are crucial steps in reducing the risk of incidents.
  • Work in partnership with our people—empowering them to share concerns and being open to suggestions for improved performance.
  • Safety is everyone’s responsibility—people in every aspect of our operations have a role to play in creating a safe workplace.
  • Safety and health can always be improved—a workplace learning culture can always apply new ideas for improving safety and learn lessons from mistakes.

Leadership

There are many examples of the work that is being carried out by coal companies and associations to make further progress on safety. In 2013, the WCA launched the “Leadership and Excellence Awards” to recognize outstanding achievement and innovation in the international coal industry and its value chain. The awards also aim to help drive further environmental and safety improvements and innovation across the industry.

One of the four awards presented—the WCA Award for Leadership on Mining Safety—recognized projects or products that enhance the coal industry’s safety record. The award was presented to the Shenhua Group, in recognition of their extensive program to improve safety at their operations. This work included establishing a modern safety management philosophy and corporate culture, actively exploring and applying a Coal Mine Preemptive Risk Control System, raising investment on safe production and technological innovation, and training employees to improve their competence.

WCA_awards_logoPerhaps Shenhua’s approach to safety was best summarized by Harry Kenyon-Slaney, WCA’s new Chairman and Chief Executive of Rio Tinto Energy, who sat on the judging panel:

Shenhua’s achievement in safety performance across a diverse range of coal mines is truly very impressive. Such high levels of sustained performance require a strong commitment to safety throughout the entire company and the management systems and processes to deliver against that vision. There can be nothing more important than the well-being of our employees. Shenhua is to be congratulated for world-class safety outcomes.

The runner-up for the WCA Award for Leadership on Mining Safety was the U.S. National Mining Association (NMA), which was recognized for its important work on safety through the CORESafety® program. In addition, Greg Boyce, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Peabody Energy and a key figure in the development of CORESafety®, alongside other industry leaders, was also recently awarded the 2014 WCA Chairman’s Special Award in recognition of his global leadership on mining safety.

Further Improvements

This level of leadership and commitment on safety is essential to ensuring we continue to make improvements in safety standards. For WCA members, the goal is the elimination of fatalities, injuries, and workplace illnesses in operations. Our members believe in the continuous improvement in safety performance and, to that end, the WCA has committed to

  • Publish, on an annual basis, information about action taken across our member companies to improve safety performance;
  • Develop a reporting framework across our membership to provide statistical information about our safety performance.

To reiterate, ensuring our people return home safely at the end of the working day is of the utmost importance to the WCA. For WCA members, safety is a value and it is fundamental to the way we do all things; we must continue to work to ensure our workplaces are as safe as possible.

If you would like a copy of the WCA Commitment to Safety, please email info@worldcoal.org or visit www.worldcoal.org.

 

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.