Phil McCarthy reviews changes in coal

DURING a working life spanning 36 years Phil McCarthy has been involved in virtually every aspect of the Australian coal industry. His various roles have taken him from mine manager at the coalface to CEO running a $360 million company.

Staff Reporter

Last year, following his retirement from Powercoal, he replaced General Richard Lawson as chairman of the International Committee for Coal Research (ICCR), an international research organisation representing 16 major coal producing nations. ICCR is a forum for the exchange of ideas and information between coal communities and their governments.

McCarthy started his career in the coal industry in 1965 in the Vales Point area, an emerging area of importance for the NSW coal industry at the time. From 1990 to 2000 McCarthy was CEO and managing director of the Powercoal operations, which came into being as an entity with the 1993 amalgamation of Elcom Collieries, Newcom Collieries and Huntley Colliery.

Under McCarthy’s leadership, Powercoal was reformed into a market driven company. Safety, as measured by lost time injury frequency rates, improved by 82%. Labour productivity improved by 90%, while the workforce was reduced by 58%.

Prior to leaving Powercoal, he took the $120 million Mandalong mine project through exploration, bankable feasibility and start of construction phases.

McCarthy has nurtured a strong R&D focus throughout his career, through his involvement with ACIRL, as a director on the board of the Australian Coal Association and now through the ICCR.

Trends of growing importance at an R&D level are coal utilization and sustainability. McCarthy called on the coal industry to be willing to support "unpopular" technologies and not judge R&D efforts within given paradigms. He gave the example of the development of pressurized fluidised bed combustion (PFBC) plants in the early 1990s.

“Years ago I visited a PFBC demonstration plant in West Virginia which showed how you could burn high sulphur coal in a pressurized fluidized bed combustion plant at efficiency of around 44%.

“Illinois has recently embraced PFBC technology and in a matter of months they have four PFBC plants under construction which will reinvigorate the coal industry and eventually sell electricity to California.”

Through his various operational and research roles, McCarthy has witnessed first hand the enormous technological changes over the last 40 years. While these solutions are generally developed in response to industry need, not enough is known about the science behind that solution for performance to be really optimised, he said.

McCarthy said technology such as resin-anchored roof bolts had revolutionised strata control but the science behind the technology only came later.

“We developed the technology and then it took ten to twenty years before people like Winton Gale, Russell Frith, and Jim Galvin really set up the knowledge management systems behind that technology,” he said.

McCarthy said keeping the knowledge base alive and continually improving technology was a key function ACARP fulfilled.

“One of the breakthroughs I saw in my mining career was in diesel equipment, remembering that before 1965 the use of diesel equipment was banned in underground coal. I was seconded to ACIRL in the late sixties to introduce the first diesels into the coal industry. Once again we did the technology development, however the knowledge management was only really developed in the nineties when we put the science to the technology after the event.

“When you look at longwalls the technology advances of the 1980s are still ongoing. The failures of the 1950s and 1960s were because we tried to transfer technology straight from the UK to Australia resulting in major collapses because the equipment was not fit for purpose,” McCarthy said.

Looking to the future, McCarthy said while the move to multi-skilling has delivered improvements in productivity and maintenance practices, the next opportunity is to develop techniques for the workforce to recognise and manage problems in hands-on fashion.

In particular, people should be trained to examine the 10-15 minute time horizon in an operating system, known as “short interval control” and used extensively in open-cut operations.

“For example, if your longwall AFC keeps tripping every ten minutes people need to be able to identify the problem and fix it there and then, not just report it. This needs another level of thinking and training.”

McCarthy warned that moves to automation and higher-level control functions meant operators had to ensure workers were literate.

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