Modern MiningAugust 17, 2013
Story by Alexandra Sondeen
Photos by Matthew Busch
Employees at the Shamrock Mine never really know what their work environment will look like from one day to the next.
“It changes every day,” said Vance Fiscus, night foreman at the coal mine northwest of Ireland and a Cato resident. “If you’re on vacation for a week, you won’t recognize the place at all when you get back.”
At the direction of the foremen, giant machines — some the size of small houses — scurry to and fro around the clock to uncover and remove the black carbon-based fuel from the earth. The landscape changes by the hour.
“It’s kind of like choreographing a dance down there, is what you’re doing,” Ireland resident and day foreman Phil Lutgring said.
Indianapolis-based Solar Sources, which has an office in Petersburg, opened the mine in the fall of 2006. The first loads of coal were shipped in early 2007.
Today, the mine is about 1,500 acres and is steadily working north up County Road 700W east of County Road 750W.
“By today’s standards, this is a small mine,” Mike Owen, manager of regulatory affairs, said. “The smaller guys have been priced out of the business. You’ve got to be big enough to handle the cash flow issues and you have a lot of capital outlay before you start making money.”
Regulatory issues also work against smaller companies. Owen said it can take years and many thousands of dollars just to acquire all the necessary permits before any ground can be broken.
The mine frequently works with the federal Mining Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. State agencies include the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Management. On a local level, the mine works with Dubois County government and area property owners.
“We deal with just about everybody,” Owen said. “Every year that goes by, it seems like they keep piling the regulations higher and give us more things to deal with, but if it weren’t worth it then we wouldn’t be here.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal prices in the Illinois Basin averaged about $24 per ton in 2002. Today, the price has nearly doubled to about $45 per ton.
Most of the Shamrock Mine property is leased from Dubois County landowners, though some parcels are purchased outright. Once the land is bonded and other formalities are taken care of, the mine can start pulling the coal from the ground.
At the Shamrock Mine, five veins of coal at varying depths as great as about 150 feet are mined.
“We sometimes see six veins in some places, but it’s usually five,” Lutgring said.
At the start of each shift, the day and night foremen meet to go over the progress made and what needs to be done next. Mine roads frequently shift and the mile-long high wall, the leading wall of rock and soil where the mine is advancing forward, changes daily.
Mining starts with the relocation or demolition of buildings and the clearing of trees. The mine will work around power lines, leaving the support structures safe on islands of untouched ground while everything around them is mined.
Scrapers remove the topsoil, transporting it behind the main pit to be spread on land that already has been mined and is being reclaimed. Shovel machines and dump trucks then remove the subsoil to be spread on reclaimed ground or stored in piles temporarily.
“As you’re moving forward, you’re putting what you’ve already mined back together behind you,” Lutgring said.
Drilling crews then bore holes through the bedrock — which is typically shale but sometimes includes flint, limestone and sandstone — down to the next seam of coal. The holes are filled with explosives and wired with detonation cord.
“We have to keep track of absolutely everything when it comes to the explosives,” Lutgring said. “How much we use, what time the shots go off. It’s a lot of paperwork.”
The following blast heaves the ground upward in a gray shower of rock and dust, leaving feet of loose rock that dozers will tidy up for shovels to load into dump trucks.
The mine’s largest dump trucks, which can carry 200 tons, are used to shuttle the blasted rock to a holding area where it will stay until it’s needed to fill a pit for reclamation.
Dozers then break up the coal, pushing it into piles for loaders to scoop it into the mine’s smaller dump trucks. Those trucks carry about 44 tons of coal at a time to the mine’s wash plant where the coal is broken down to size and washed to remove impurities like sulfur and clay.
The finished coal is then loaded into about 200 semitrailers a day and taken to a rail station near Pike Central High School in Petersburg.
In 2012, the mine produced 867,026 tons of coal.
“That was actually a down year for us,” Owen said, adding later that the mine can produce as much as 1.5 million tons per year.
The coal is shipped across the Midwest, mostly to power plants run by Duke Energy and the Louisville Gas and Electric Co.
“Coal gets a bad rap, but a lot of people don’t realize that if you stop producing coal, their lights are going to go off,” Alan Robling, a dozer operator from Lynnville, said.
Lutgring said the jobs that help produce materials that other industries depend on are some of the most stable in the United States.
“These are the kinds of jobs that will stay here because the stuff is pulled out of the ground here,” he said. “They talk about all the technology jobs now, but there’s nothing keeping those jobs from going to China eventually.”
Shamrock mine has more than 80 employees; more than half live in Dubois County. In 2012, the mine paid $6,984,847 in wages and benefits and another $148,761 in local property taxes.
“We definitely have an impact on the local economy,” Owen said.
The miners themselves have formed tight-knit communities among the various crews. Nearly everyone has a nickname or two and the radio waves are often filled with chatter on topics including the economy, politics and books.
“They talk about pretty much everything,” Fiscus said.
Oilers keep the machines greased daily and mechanics repair them when they break down.
Laborers move pumps and hoses and spray reclaimed water on mine roads to keep the dust down.
“The dust is really the biggest thing out here,” Fiscus said. “But when it rains, it’s really a mess.”
While graders are constantly in motion to help create and maintain mine roads, most of the employees drive pickup trucks to work to handle the rough terrain and get through the thick gray muck when it’s wet.
Since the mine opened, Solar Sources has handled a handful of damage claims from nearby residents for cracked walls or basement floors that could be attributed to shock waves from blasting.
“What we have more often are water issues with people’s wells,” Owen said. “If we get close to them, a lot of times we’ll end up draining the well because water takes the path of least resistance. We’ll connect them to a water utility and solve that problem.”
Owen said the mine’s plan extends into 2018 with the current leases and rate of production. Solar Sources plans to line up additional leases in future years to extend the life of the mine, provided there’s enough coal in the ground to do so.
“We hope to be here a lot longer than that and there’s a good chance we will be,” he said.
The final step in mining is to reclaim the property. Reclaimed farmland must produce crops as well as it did before it was mined in order for the bonds on the property to be released back to Solar Sources. Much of the land that has already been mined is now being farmed.
“The sooner we can let the farmers back onto it, the better,” Owen said. “It helps with erosion and starts building the nutrients back up in the soil. We typically keep the property in our control for at least five years to make sure it’s productive before we can turn it back over to the owner.”
Solar Sources has another active mine in Daviess County and two more within 30 miles of the Shamrock Mine that are ready to open depending on what happens in the coal market.
“They used to say anyone could be a coal miner, but it just isn’t true,” Lutgring said. “You either can or can’t. But for the guys who can and who enjoy it, it sure beats sitting in an office all day long.”
Contact Alexandra Sondeen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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