Mine parched by supplier drought

WHEN carrying out an exploration project for a possible new longwall operation amidst the mountains and rivers of Nova Scotia in Canada, you would not expect to find yourself in the heart of a drought. But this is precisely the situation global miner Xstrata has found itself in.

Angie Tomlinson

Well, not a drought of the traditional sense, but a supplier drought.

Whilst in the conceptual phase of its Donkin project, located off Cape Breton Island in the Sydney coal field in Canada’s east coast, Xstrata’s biggest challenge has been to find suppliers to get the 200 million ton thermal and metallurgical coal resource off – or rather out of – the ground.

“The key issue for us has been distance. We don’t have a lot of local supply infrastructure – especially underground suppliers – to support our business,” Donkin project manager Darren Nicholls said.

“We are looking at how best we can develop relationships with suppliers to support the business. We are saying hey, there is an opportunity here and we would really like to be helped.”

The Donkin project is being explored by the Xstrata Donkin Mine Development Alliance 75% held by Xstrata Coal and 25% by Halifax-based Erdene Gold.

The project has just completed the conceptual phase with the reserve and resource, coal quality, transport options, gas drainage, development and financials all under consideration by Xstrata Coal management.

The project has been explored previously, with former federal Crown corporation Cape Breton Development driving two tunnels down to the seam in the 1980s. The project was abandoned and the tunnels were flooded and sealed.

Now Xstrata Coal Donkin Management is opening those same tunnels. At the end of last year, the exploration team recovered 460m of the 3000m long tunnels, which according to Nicholls, “so far are in excellent condition and very pleasing from a geotechnical point of view”

Water is being pumped from the tunnels at an average of 60-65 liters a second.

Nicholls said besides the supply problems to the mine, the other major challenge if the mine proves feasible will be the slightly dipping nature of the seam.

If the project goes ahead, not only will it mean much-needed jobs in the area, but also the first longwall mine in the country since 2001. The area has a long and chequered history of longwall operations – one thing Xstrata has found to its advantage with the depth of experienced miners in the area.

“We are very happy to be operating and doing an exploration project in the area with the people being extremely supportive at all levels. There is some great expertise in the local area in terms of skill set amongst the ex-underground miners,” Nicholls said.

The only other underground coal currently in operation in Canada is Grand Cache’s 2Mtpa No. 7 mine in Alberta that uses room and pillar methods.

Published in the March 2006 American Longwall Magazine

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