The Cline Group constructs four underground coal mining complexes
By Lee Buchsbaum
With more bituminous coal reserves than any other region, for almost two decades industry observers have been predicting that as utilities installed greater amounts of scrubbers on their units throughout the U.S., a much larger market would develop for Illinois Basin coal.
It was into this environment in 2005 that Foresight Energy, the coal mining arm of the Cline Group, began quietly developing the first new longwall operation to start up in Illinois in a generation. Constructing its Williamson mine in a farm field almost in the shadows of the former Old Ben No. 27 south of West Frankfort, Foresight Energy kept a low public profile, keeping out of harpoon range as the company began executing what has evolved into an incredibly shrewd and ambitious plan to bring some of the most favorable remaining U.S. reserves to a growing worldwide market.
Since then, Foresight has purchased and rehabbed the former ExxonMobil Monterey No. 1 mine and is in the process of developing two other longwall operations, Sugar Camp and Hillsboro. The newly rebuilt Macoupin complex, a former longwall now turned continuous miner operation, while producing coal, has been in development all year and is about ready to really run. Williamson, Foresight’s first foray, has blossomed into arguably the most productive underground mine in the nation. Though under construction, its massive new Sugar Camp complex has shipped coal throughout most of 2010 as development work moves forward on the first of its two initial M-Class Mining longwalls. Rounding it out, toward the end of October, Foresight’s under-construction Hillsboro longwall complex hit its first coal during slope development of the Deer Run mine.
Today, with three longwall complexes and one not-quite conventional mine in various stages of production and development, the Cline Group’s aptly named Foresight Energy is nearing the end of the initial phase of a plan that might up-end the entire coal market. Built largely on the vision of its namesake Chris Cline and developed by a visionary top management team led by CEO Michael Beyer, CFO Donald Holcomb, Senior Vice President of Mining Operations Drexel Short and Vice President of Sales and Marketing Michael Moran, Foresight is building out a fleet of complexes that will have the capacity to employ up to eight longwalls and several continuous miner units. Over the next decade, if market conditions call for it, Foresight’s mines will be able to cost-effectively and safely produce in excess of 50 million clean tpye—and that’s just Stage One.
To support this tidal wave of coal, Foresight has also signed a long-term partnership with a regional shortline railroad to convey its coal both to a variety of Class I railroads or funnel the coal to a 25 million tpy coal dock currently being constructed near Mt. Vernon, Ind., on the Ohio River. While developing its mines, Foresight has built-in a variety of transportation options for each complex providing them with unsurpassed transportation ensuring Foresight’s ability to be the low cost provider to almost any coal market. Combined with a hand-picked core of can-do coal miners recruited from throughout Central Appalachia and Illinois, and led by an experienced, innovative and nimble mine management team, Foresight is creating a revolutionary new culture of production. The company’s build-out is nothing short of transformative for the citizens of Illinois and for the Illinois coal industry.
Believing in the Potential of Illinois
In 2009, Illinois produced just over 33.5 million tons of coal. Foresight Energy’s two producing mines were responsible for almost 20% of that production. When the 2010 figures are tallied, that percentage will be even higher. With almost 3 billion tons of assigned clean and easily recoverable coal reserves, more than $1 billion in investments, the most productive underground thermal mine in the nation, and today producing from four mining complexes, Foresight Energy is poised to become the dominant producer in the state and perhaps the entire Illinois Basin.
Mike Beyer’s sudden realization of the emerging potential of Illinois coal happened while he was still working for AEP. Tasked with determining what a post-scrubber, high sulfur coal supply and demand environment might look like, he quickly recognized there was an imminent shortage of high sulfur coal available for this new market. Following his time with AEP, Beyer started looking for high sulfur coal investment opportunities for himself and he kept bumping into Chris Cline. Cline had already realized the vast potential Illinois coal would have once sulfur was backed out of the fuel buying equation. “Chris and John Dickinson, then president of Chris’ West Virginia operations were out there in the late 1990s when everybody else was selling those reserves and properties. They knew the geology was good. Chris looked at it and said ‘someday this coal is going to be mined. This is low cost, I don’t know if it will be me or my grandkids, but it will be mined.’ When he and I hooked up, Chris had already begun making the investments to mine that coal.”
Cline’s bet on the potential of Illinois coal was still a long shot when he began making serious investments in the area. Picking up reserves abandoned by ExxonMobil, Chevron, the Addington Bros. and others, he rolled the dice without several of his former partners backing his play. “Chris was willing to take more risk than we were,” said Robb Turner, co-founder of Boston hedge fund ArcLight Capital Partners LLC. According to Bloomberg, ArcLight and Turner were involved in purchasing Cline’s West Virginia mines as part of larger Magnum play (forerunner to Patriot Coal), but they declined to invest in Illinois because they “expected meager profits.”
Conversely, Natural Resource Partners (NRP) has been with Cline every step of the way. Over the years, NRP has helped fund Foresight’s build out by purchasing its reserves and leasing them back to the company. “Chris knows how to mine coal,” said Nick Carter, president, NRP, who, according to Bloomberg, has provided Cline with $315 million in financing since 2005 and promised $205 million more. “I want him gambling with my money,” Carter said.
When asked why no other company has decided to invest and build high capacity mines again in Illinois, Beyer said it comes down to instincts and the ability to act on what you fundamentally believe. “No one else was willing to bet or act on what for Chris was a fundamental belief: that these Illinois properties are and will be the low cost reserves that can readily meet the requirements of the post-scrubber demand for high Btu, high sulfur coal he saw coming. Others wanted to wait for the market to develop. They typically don’t like spending significant capital opening mines without long term coal sales,” said Beyer.
While others waited, Foresight moved quickly. “There is only one speed with Chris and that is ‘fast.’ One of our mottos is ‘time kills deals.’ You let a moment pass: you miss it. It’s gone. That’s not Chris,” said Beyer. Foresight’s strategy is to be ahead of the market and gain first mover advantage. “Foresight’s coal from Illinois is already established in the domestic and international market because of our head start on other producers. When European coal buyers talk about high Btu, high sulfur coal from Illinois, they refer to it as “Williamson coal” after our Williamson Energy operation,” said Beyer.
Selling Domestically, Looking Overseas
In a domestic energy market affected by cheap natural gas and buffeted by the current administration’s anti-coal sentiment, 2010 coal prices have been buoyed by increasing international demand for met and, in increasing amounts, steam coal. Vital to their expanding economies, China, India and other Asian nations are constructing more than 170 gigawatts of new coal-fired electrical generation capacity, all expected to come on-line by 2015.
Growing Indian and Chinese demand is rapidly pulling coal out of Europe, Russia, Indonesia and other markets. Worldwide, both producers and traders are scrambling to keep up with renewed demand while fulfilling existing orders. “The United States and Foresight in particular, are stepping in to fill that void. We’ve sold more than 2 million tpy in each of the last two years into the international market. But in 2011 and going forward, we expect to sell in excess of 3 million tpy and as much as 10 million tpy going overseas,” said Beyer.
“Though we developed all of these operations for the domestic scrubbed market, in each of the last two years more than 40% of our coal has been shipped internationally,” said Beyer. To date, Foresight’s coal has been sold into the U.K., Germany, Portugal and Greece as well as the north coast of Africa. “But over the past six months, we’re seeing increased interest from Asia. In fact, we have seven vessels sold into India from December to May 2011.”
While many producers worldwide are concentrating on further penetrations of China’s vast coal market, Foresight feels the rapidly expanding Indian economy is poised to become a larger and more sustained opportunity for U.S. producers. “China could simply turn on a switch and produce more coal. Though it has huge demand, it also has huge production capabilities,” said Beyer.
A significant amount of India’s extraordinary electrical build-out will likely come on the back of imported coal. “I get the impression India will have trouble ramping up its domestic coal production in the near term to meet this need. As a result of its expanding electrical and industrial infrastructures, it will become a sustained coal importer. We feel it’s crucial to have the ability to get our coal to India cost effectively,” Beyer said.
With the world’s second largest population, India intends to provide electricity to every household by 2012. More than half of India’s power generation capacity is coal-fired and Coal India is preparing to bring in additional supplies from overseas as it awaits environmental approval for new mining projects. Recent reports indicate Indian coal demand may double from the current 450 million tons by March 2017.
Beyer touts his coal’s quality and cost as reasons the international market has begun to embrace them. “Our coal can compete in markets overseas because we are a low cost producer and we have so many transportation options—we can leverage the railroad against river barging or one railroad against another so we can keep our transportation rates low as well. We feel we have some of the lowest cost per Btu coal delivered into the vessel than just about anywhere in the world,” said Beyer.
But all markets change. While today the U.S. is becoming a go-to region for hungry Asian economies, wishful thinking won’t keep it permanent. Beyer, however, isn’t concerned at this point. “From our perspective, we’re a low cost operator with good transportation access to almost every eastern U.S. and international market. For now we can focus on whichever market gives us the highest margin. We’d love the domestic market to be stronger, but it feels like low cost gas is going to be around for a while, so a big part of our focus is overseas. If India, China, Mozambique, South Africa, Australia or Indonesia ramp up coal production that might make it more competitive than it is today, especially as we’re transportation disadvantaged over there. But as a low cost producer we should remain competitive in all markets. The higher cost producers or producers with limited transportation options have more risk,” said Beyer.
Looking out over the next few years, Foresight is more than 90% sold out for 2011 and almost 60% sold out for 2012. With demand growing, just before Thanksgiving it made the decision to pull the trigger on the second longwall at Sugar Camp. “Once we get that sold, we’ll start development on the third longwall there too. As the market develops, we’ll evaluate the need for a fourth longwall. Meanwhile, we have the infrastructure, the reserves and the management depth to make it happen,” Beyer said.
Building a Dream Team
With an incredible reserve base, sufficient capital, loads of moxie and great foresight, Foresight’s management understood it needed the human talent to realize its vision. “We set out with the intent to recruit operators with the same safe and productive culture that Chris has. It’s something they all share, as a group and they are creating that culture themselves at the mines they run and are developing,” said Beyer.
“In order to do this build-out right, we really needed the best operators and the best minds we could find,” said Beyer. Unlike larger coal companies that have numerous mines and require so many mine managers, Foresight could afford to concentrate on attracting and retaining the four best managers it could find. So, while all four complexes are operated by contractors, Cline worked to make sure those contractors had great managers.
Over a relatively short period of time, Foresight in conjunction with its contractors, recruited industry veterans Barry Hale, now president of M-Class Mining, the operator at Sugar Camp, and Drexel Short. Pete Hendrick had already developed the Panther longwall and other mines in West Virginia. Hendrick, in turn, took Anthony Webb, now Mach’s president, along with him. Foresight recruited Dwayne Francisco, another Hendrick protégé and veteran longwall operator, from Magnum where he had been COO. Francisco is now president of Patton Mining, the operator of Foresight’s Hillsboro mine.
As the Foresight Energy group grows, its contractors will continue to hire more employees. The general projection is 150-165 employees per longwall operation. With eight longwalls and several sections, the Ohio River dock and other support systems, over time Foresight’s contractors may employ roughly 1,500 throughout the region. The jobs created and those to come are already having a tremendous impact. “The multiplier effect is going to be very significant. These are high paying jobs. This is an opportunity for folks to make $70,000-$80,000 in several rather economically depressed counties in southern Illinois,” said Beyer. Conservative estimates suggest each mining job in Illinois generates three to five multiplier jobs though some studies push that up to 11. “That affects the entire regional economy,” said Beyer.
Foresight Achieves Freedom from Captivity
Equally important to development strategies, carefully optimizing each mine’s location based upon potential or actual transportation options will add tremendously to Foresight’s long term success. Foresight selected each of its three longwall mine’s locations in part based upon their proximity to more than one rail carrier. And, being in Illinois, each mine is relatively close to either the Mississippi or Ohio Rivers. Beyond this, Foresight has signed a long-term haulage deal with the Evansville Western short line to originate its coal and interchange it with one of the major class one carriers the EW connects with or to transport that coal to Foresight’s new Ohio River dock.
Foresight’s Savatran subsidiary is also close to completing a new rail spur from Sugar Camp to the Evansville Western at McLeansboro. “We’ve tried to develop infrastructure that effectively creates a single line haul from our operations to market. We do that by absorbing the costs related to the short line,” said Beyer.
Though once the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s mainline to St. Louis, CSX had long since downgraded the line to branch line status when it was sold to Evansville Western, a subsidiary of the Paducah & Louisville. “The EW will serve as a funnel to get a large percentage of our coal from Mt. Vernon and McLeansboro to our dock. From there, all of that coal will be transloaded and put on the Ohio River,” said Sam Hatcher, vice president of land acquisitions and project development, Foresight, and the person tasked with developing SITRAN’s river and rail facilities. Once on the river, Foresight is competitive throughout the Ohio and Mississippi River system.
Early in the development stages, Foresight was determined not to become captive to any single railroad carrier or transportation method. As the company has expanded, it has developed relationships with multiple carriers and has helped create new routes and connections that did not exist before. For its part, Evansville Western is thrilled to have the opportunity to move high volumes of freight for relatively short distances. “It’s an outstanding partnership. We see in them an organization that functions at its core with a similarly aggressive mindset as ours. They make decisions quickly and with a lack of bureaucracy,” said Hatcher.
Additionally, Foresight is planning to purchase both the extra locomotives and train-sets EW will need to convey its coal back and forth to the new river terminal or to the Class I carriers to which the short line connects. Foresight plans to buy enough power initially to run two trains at any given time.
To the north, Macoupin has two direct rail connections, NS and UP. Hillsboro will have the same access points. Both mines can also ship coal from the loadout over NS to the Evansville Western as well. From there, EW will be able to take the coal further east to the river for transloading. “Now we’re set up to have the option of bringing the Hillsboro and Macoupin product straight to the dock or other Class I connections,” said Hatcher.
If all goes as planned, Sugar Camp will eventually enjoy nearly unrivaled access to five Class I railroads as well as both the Ohio and Mississippi River systems. Even though Sugar Camp currently loads on the CN. “Once we have completed the new rail spur to the Evansville Western, we’ll have options no other mine currently enjoys,” said Beyer. In addition to the new Mt. Vernon connector, EW already interchanges with both BNSF and CSX, and discussions have occurred with UP about an interchange between them and EW as well. If all that comes together as planned, then “no other mine, and certainly no other mine of this production capacity, will have that much transportation optionality,” said Beyer.
Though the CN/IC currently ships Foresight’s coal by rail to southeastern customers or down to the Gulf for export, Foresight has the option to build a spur that would allow it to connect its Williamson mine to Sugar Camp and thus the EW. “Whether that gets built or not hasn’t been determined, but the organization retains the ability to construct a branch from Williamson to the EW if necessary,” said Hatcher.
Built into Foresight’s strategy of self-reliance, not only will it own its locomotives and cars, but once the trains arrive at either of its mines or coal dock, through remote control, Foresight’s personnel will take over at the throttle. This step further ensures the company quick turn-arounds at both ends. “When a train enters our property, we’ll take control. The train loading process will be automated,” said Hatcher. With the EW serving as a bridge between the mines and the dock, “we’ll dump and then those trains will come back for more. The process will be automated on both ends. We want to be able to load a train in three hours and unload that same train in three hours. Both loading and unloading capacities are set to a 5,000-tph capacity,” said Hatcher.
Moving it to the River
Though slower, the river route is far more economical over time. Foresight’s new West Franklin Coal Transfer Facility on the Ohio River dock near Mt. Vernon is designed to have a capacity of 25 million tpy. That makes it one of the largest coal docks on the Ohio River, and certainly the largest producer owned facility on the river.
With a relatively small footprint, the SITRAN group’s design calls for this to be a very aggressive facility. “It’ll feature a 72-inch main belt conveying coal roughly 1 mile at 5,000 tph straight to the river. What makes our facility different are the number of river cells we’re building and the fact that we’ll have five barges ready for loading on a string at one time. The ability to load five 1,750 ton barges before we have to stop the belt again to reposition the next barge group allows us a greater continuity,” said Hatcher.
As the year ends, the majority of the dock’s earthwork has been completed and all the mooring cells are now complete. The main coal conveyor is currently being erected and is on target to be completed in the first quarter of 2011. SITRAN is hanging steel for the coal dumper and two stacking tubes will be complete by early January.
Besides the size and strategic intent of the facility, the dock is specifically located in the heart of the Illinois Basin customer base and is also well positioned for movements to the export market. “With the navigational dam system on the Ohio River, we have adequate water depth year round. We’re essentially located in a slack water section of the river, yet in close proximity to the navigational channel,” said Dock Superintendent Danny Wooton.
A longtime veteran of Kinder Morgan, Alliance Resources and most recently, western Kentucky’s Phoenix Coal, Wooton loves the design and capability of the new dock. “It’s similar to Kinder’s Cora, Illinois facility, but has some key upgrades. We’ve essentially taken a very proven three-decade old high capacity design and tweaked it a bit,” said Wooton.
SITRAN’s dock will have the capability of staging four 135-car trains on site, in addition to a nearby EW 135-car siding. The rail dumper has a redundant conveyor system to facilitate unloading even if a hopper conveyor is down. All inclined conveyors are totally enclosed to eliminate winter weather issues. Coal can be unloaded from railcars into any of the storage piles while simultaneously loading barges from any pile. The enhanced barge loading pantleg chute is capable of jumping barge-to-barge on any existing equipment on the inland water system. Conveyor capacity at the river is the highest on the Ohio and the high performance breasting system “will allow a volumetric advantage when the facility is operating at a higher capacities,” said Wooton. The dock will also have more than 1 million tons of storage capacity with the tallest stacking tubes in the Midwest. The improved control technology will allow the terminal to operate with minimal personnel. The facility also features a unit rail loadout, unique to a river terminal. “The terminal is also environmentally sensitive, with high quality wetlands mitigation areas already complete and special barge handling procedures to protect area mussel beds,” said Wooton.
Once Foresight’s coal reaches the terminus of the Mississippi in New Orleans, the company has also locked up significant terminaling capacity for the next six years through both United Bulk Terminals and the IC Rail Marine Terminal, owed by the CN. “In terms of the ability to get our coal into the Gulf, we’re set for years,” said Beyer.
And years is important because just three years from now, in 2014, the newly expanded Panama Canal is scheduled to open, and Beyer is excited. “It’s going to make a tremendous difference.” Currently, vessels travel east out of the Gulf through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal or around the Horn of Africa to reach India and China. “If you could just go south and west through the expanded canal, that would shorten time up by a couple of weeks.” Right now it takes on average 60 to 90 days to reach India. In 2014, transit times out of New Orleans to Chinese and Indian coal ports will significantly drop and the prepared low-cost producers will be sitting in the cat bird seat.
Accelerating to Mach One and Beyond
Foresight Energy began drafting and planning its first Illinois mine in 2004 and Mach Mining LLC, the operator of Foresight’s Williamson mining complex, received its permit the following July. Slope work began in November of 2005 and it took almost another 12 months to drive it down to coal. While developing the mine, Mach Mining just as carefully began creating a core group of experienced coal miners to build the new company’s culture around. Initially, Williamson brought six people out from West Virginia with them and, over time, it very selectively hired an additional 20 Illinoisans. “Together all 26 of us drove our slope. When we hit bottom, we branched out and picked up two more sections. Then we hired another 25 to 30 people—each one recommended by one or more of the original 20,” said Anthony Webb, mine manager, Mach Mining.
Overseeing initial mine construction and development was Webb’s mentor, Hendrick. Known throughout the industry as an expert in advanced longwall mine design, Hendrick largely designed the Williamson complex and his influence extends to all three longwall mine’s layouts. When Hendrick retired in 2008, Webb took over mine management. Though only 33 years old, Webb has more than 12 years of mining experience and he has been at Mach since day one.
Record Setting Production
By many statistics, Mach has become one of, if not the most, productive longwall mine in the nation. “MSHA’s third quarter production numbers list us at 18.4 tons per total man hour (tptmh), highest in the nation. Our nearest competition is 9.7 tpmh,” said Webb. Year-to-date, Mach was also top in the nation for a longwall mine. Through the third quarter, with just 151 employees, it had mined more than 4,485,000 tons, sporting a 15.08 tptmh figure. Using the same metrics, it was also the ninth most productive mine in terms of tonnage. On the average, Mach loads two trains per day. But this past June, they shipped out a best ever 730,000 clean tons in one month.
One of the mine’s recent production records was set when they retreated 136 feet on a 1,250 foot face over a 24-hour period. “We’ve checked with both Joy and Bucyrus. They told us that was the most ever mined in that time frame. On a 1,000-ft face, that equates to 170 feet. At Speed Mining, we were the best of the best, but we never beat 140 ft once. Our boys have done good. That’s four football fields of 8-ft coal mined in just 24-hours. We produced 77,000 raw tons that day,” said Webb. During that same week, they also had a 127-, 130- and 132-ft days, setting a new record.
Developing a New Longwall Mine and a New Safety Oriented Culture
The initial longwall development at Pond Creek began during the first quarter of 2007. Mach drove its first 18,000-ft panel in about nine to 10 months. Longwall setup took another few months into the first quarter of 2008. The company first fired it up in March 2008 and brought on an additional 60 people to make up the total staff. “After we started our first panel, it took us about a year to pull. Our second panel was begun in February 2009, and we finished that in about a year. Now we are on our third,” said Webb. The first two panels were 1,250 ft wide and 18,000 ft long. The third panel, and each after, will be 1,400 ft wide and 19,000 ft long.
When Mach began development, “we only employed about five people who had ever seen a longwall before. We began our longwall face with a bunch of red-hats,” said Webb. Even today, almost 60% to 70% of Mach’s workforce has never worked in another underground mine. “We chose to start with red-hats because we wanted to create our own culture. We’ve since reaped the rewards by instilling good habits in good people. We’ve brought West Virginia flair to the Midwest with our development strategies. We develop about 2,300 linear ft per day (fpd). Most mines around here only do 50 to 60 ft. A lot of people don’t understand how we do it with only 126 people underground. They think we’re hiding people somewhere,” said Webb.
Currently Mach runs three longwall production shifts five days per week. It runs the miner sections two production shifts five days a week including a maintenance shift. Maintenance is performed on the wall Saturday, and is usually idle Sunday.
To maintain the average production rate of almost 1.2 million raw tons a month, Mach’s longwall is outfitted with a Bucyrus face conveyor, AFC, and stageloader equipped with a Joy 7LS2A shearer and supported by 1,200 ton Bucyrus shields. Mach also employs two Joy 12CM27 miners on each section, along with a pair of Fletcher walk through bolters, three 10sc32 shuttle cars, a Bucyrus feeder and a Bucyrus scoop. Mach has 11 men on each of the development sections, and 10 on their longwall crew. The mine uses 60-in. longwall belts, and 72-in. mainline belts rated at 5,000 tph traveling 790 fpm.
Mach maintains a water curtain on the longwall that envelops the entire shearer. This feature is critical to maintain compliance with MSHA dust regulations. “A lot of folks don’t do that. It costs a little bit of money up front, but the benefits you get from it long term are just amazing,” said Webb.
According to Bloomberg, Foresight spends $28 per square foot on roof support, “four times more than competitors do.” Several years ago, Cline lost one of his closest friends in a roof fall in one of his mines. The scarring event has driven him to put an even greater emphasis on safety throughout his company. “There is more of a human aspect to us than just sending a guy underground and not caring,” Cline said. “Zero is certainly our goal.”
Mach’s development crews cut about 9.5 to 10 ft but the longwall takes an 81-in. cut. Generally the beginning of each panel is about 72 inches. “But as we come out, the coal gets thicker. At the end of the panel it is about 96 in.” Mach’s 18,000-ft panels are so large “a lot of our equipment manufacturers are telling us they’ve never mined this many tons. We’re running about 10 to 11 million tons per panel. But overall our longwall conveyors are holding up great, and we’re producing all of this on a single chain,” said Webb.
To wash its coal, Mach built a 2,000 tph simple heavy media prep plant based “on a design that’s been proven to perform,” said Webb. Mach’s clean coal recovery hovers between 60% to 65%. In order to reduce the amount of moisture in the coal slurry, the mine just began using a paste thickener. “Though that reduced it by 30%, we’re also installing a belt press that will come on line by the end of the year. This should save us another 15% to 20% too. We decided it was better to invest in this technology now then to have to deal with a lack of future slurry capacity going forward,” said Webb.
Longwall Development Practices
To successfully operate a productive longwall mine, “you have to worry about development. We’re squaring off at 19,000 ft and we’ve already developed two panels ahead,” said Webb. He credits Mach’s disciplined cut sequence as key. Unlike how many longwalls develop as three entry mines, Mach puts a belt in the middle entry. “Some folks say that’s extra work, but the middle belt adds to our productivity because our haulage is centralized. We also keep our belt moved up extremely tight. We’re constantly working to reduce our haulage distance. That’s the purpose of putting in the middle belt,” said Webb.
Though other companies develop differently, Webb believes Mach’s system is simply the next evolution of West Virginia longwall mining applied in Illinois. While some producers may haul coal six to eight breaks to the belt feeder, Mach holds it to two breaks away at the most. “Sometimes we’re only one break away. We have two miners and two bolters working in three entries with a shuttle car in all three. That’s a lot of equipment up there that some say we don’t need. But it’s proven to work,” said Webb.
Usually, Mach has two active development sections, but since it’s so far ahead, it actually sent one of the sections temporarily to Sugar Camp both to help the development and to spread Mach’s mining culture. “That section will be with them for the remainder of 2010 and all of next year doing panel development. They might return here during the third quarter of 2011 when Sugar Camp’s first longwall is cranked up,” said Webb.
Maintaining a Lean Management Style and Running Family Environment
Mach, just like Foresight as a whole, maintains a uniquely lean management style. “We’re not layered at the top. Until April 2010, I didn’t even have a superintendent to help me. From the beginning until then, I was the mine manager, longwall coordinator, superintendent and safety director. I was the committee,” said Webb. “I had three really good shift mine managers, but that’s our whole mine management team. When it’s time for another longwall move, I’m still the coordinator. That’s our philosophy. We find the more managerial layers you have, the more people are going to filter stuff out before it reaches the top. I want the full story,” said Webb.
Mach maintains a family environment. The mine is throwing a Christmas party for its employees and their families this year featuring a Michael Jackson impersonator and a dance contest. “Every year we do a kids party too. We buy gifts for all of our children and grandchildren, 310 kids overall. Santa flies in on a chopper and the kids all go crazy. Not only are we a family here but we all recognize that our families are why each of us is working here. They’re number one,” said Webb.
Encouraging Innovation & Out-of-the-Box Thinking
The Williamson mine complex operated by Mach, like many first children, has also been a bit of a laboratory for Foresight. Just the first of several planned mines, Foresight has largely based much of its future build-out and practices on what is working there and what needs to be tweaked. As it began designing the longwall shields, Mach engineered them with longer toes that stick out further. “We designed that because of our soft floors. Our shields never sink into it. When we come back after nines days of vacation, we can fire right back up again. We’ve over-designed our shields to give us that peace of mind. We can stand to sit, keep a manageable life at home, run six days a week and still be very productive,” said Webb.
During initial development work, Mach encountered some roof control issues it solved with a newly designed bolt. “We invented a rib angle that is now being marketed by Jennmar. It saved us. Hendrick and I saw we needed these rib angles, so instead of hiring additional people for spot bolting and clean up afterward, we invented this instead. Since deploying it, we’ve been very successful at preventing our ribs from sloughing,” said Webb.
Webb has also designed a fully enclosed pressurized shuttle car cab for the Joy equipment. “These guys work right behind the miner and are often hit with a lot of dust. The enclosed cab prevents that from happening. MSHA loves it because our shuttle car operators work in a totally dust free environment,” he said. Foresight is adopting this design for all its shuttle cars going forward.
Standardizing & Becoming Self-Reliant
After Mach’s prep plant was built by Powell Construction, Foresight was so pleased with the work, it actually contracted with the construction crew’s Chief Foreman Ron Davis to start his own construction company. He’s subsequently led Foresight’s prep plant build-outs first at Sugar Camp and now at Hillsboro. In between, Foresight also had him rebuild Macoupin’s prep plant and is constructing its river loading facilty as well. Foresight’s plan is to build all three prep plants almost identically to each other. “Our goal is that if you’re standing on the third floor of one of our prep plants, you won’t really be able to tell which mine you’re really at,” said Webb.
Standardized designs have been fundamental to Foresight’s entire build out campaign. Another has been using a consistent group of contractors to construct the mines. After Mach drove its own slope at the Williamson mine complex, Foresight replicated the experience at Sugar Camp. Patton Mining, the Hillsboro operator, did the same there. “They learned from our experiences and didn’t make the same mistakes we did,” said Webb. Foresight is also building a centralized warehouse at Sugar Camp though at the moment, all the operators share parts, and often expertise, whenever needed. “We all work together,” said Webb.
Sugar Camp’s M-Class Mine: Constructing a Master Complex
Standing on the top of Foresight’s Sugar Camp Mining complex’s huge new clean coal silo and loadout is the only way to really perceive the full scale of the mine’s development. The prairie stretches out to the horizon in all directions. To the west, one side of the prep plant is in operation but is abruptly cut off where its twin will soon be built. New retention ponds reflect the sky. Belts and conveyors hover over a landscape of construction and anticipation. Just below the silo, the tracks of the CN/IC are met by the newly installed rail of the Evansville Western nearly ready to begin transporting millions of tons to Foresight’s Ohio River dock or to one of four other railroad connections.
The complex operator’s name, M-Class, is a reference to “Master Class,” the highest skill level one can achieve in the sport of skeet shooting. When fully built, Sugar Camp’s M-Class mine will become one of the crown jewels in Foresight’s fleet. With two longwalls currently under development, the Sugar Camp complex is expected to bring its first shearer on line beginning in the fourth quarter of 2011. Each longwall is scheduled to produce between 6 to 7 million tpy. With a reserve base of more than 1.3 billion tons of easily accessible Herrin No. 6 and Harrisburg No. 5 coal, Sugar Camp has been designed to potentially support up to four operating longwalls at a time if market conditions are favorable. Supported by a state-of-the-art coal handling system, and with the ability to deliver the coal either directly to the river dock or to up to five Class I railroads, M-Class’ employees may quickly find themselves moving to the head of the class.
It All Started with a Sketch: Building the Slope and Rollers
Following Hendrick’s departure, Hale, president of M-Class, along with his engineering team, was tasked with putting some meat on the skeletal multiple longwall mine design Hendrick left behind. Beginning with the construction of a complex slope development project, Hale and his team immediately picked up the ball and ran with it. Armed with little more than a sketch and bolstered by Hale’s 29 years of experience operating mines, over a two year period Hale, “Little” Gary Miles and the team drove Sugar Camp’s unique switchbacked slope, constructed its massive belt drive structure and are now shipping coal. While steadily advancing longwall development on the initial panel, Sugar Camp and M-Class are today rapidly preparing for the next phase.
One of the most unique aspects of the Sugar Camp complex’s design is the 7,108 ft switchbacked slope. Though developed within a restricted surface footprint, Foresight was determined to drive a slope large enough to accommodate the massive volume of coal it was expecting to handle but still gently pitched enough as to be traversable by modified diesel trucks.
The slope was built with a switchback in order to accommodate the planned slope C which would reach down into the western portion of the reserves at a later date. “The original plan was to have the two longwalls join together only at the 10,000 tph Slope A conveyor. But as we developed, we decided to re-design the Slope B belt from 7,000 tph up to 10,000 tph. This allowed us to get the second longwall started up a year earlier,” said Hale.
Slope “A” is 3,400 ft long from head to tail and Slope “B” is 3,700 ft long from the switchback to the bottom. Located at the junction between them is Sugar Camp’s massive 84-in. belt conveyor roller and pulley-drive assembly. Rated at 10,000 tph, the belt is geared up to travel at more than 900 fpm. “The biggest difficulty that we had to overcome during the whole slope driving process was getting all that heavy stuff lifted into place and coming up with plans to do that,” said Hale.
Though today the 72 in. diameter, 74,000 lb slope “B” discharge roller sits almost 20 ft off the ground, in the beginning all Hale had to go by was just a rough drawing of the roller and conveyor junction design. “We had to go in and craft the actual plans to design that hoisting structure. It was a question of ‘how in the world do you actually set up rollers that weigh 37 tons? Barry came up with the hoist idea and we helped design that,” said Gary Miles, chief enginner, M-Class, with nearly 20 years of engineering experience with both Massey and ICG.
The design Sugar Camp developed called for the setting of the 37 ton discharge roller, the installation of the belt head into a 24-ft high cavity, and the installation of a belt drive with triple 2,000 hp motors. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve laid a plan forth to do and our men have carried out with absolute precision. You can sum it up in one word, fantastic,” said Hale.
As M-Class drove Sugar Camp’s slope, it hung metal embeds from the roof with a massive system of steel chains and graded the floor out from under it, setting the beams along the way. When it was time to begin the hoist assembly, “we started by cutting everything 12-ft high and then we took the hoisting structure underground and bolted it together and hung it off the slope roof. After we graded the floor underneath it to the proper height, we used the same beam setter that had been used to set all the steel beams going down the slope to put the 23-ft legs underneath the assembly. Then we poured concrete and set the legs underneath it. Finally we welded everything down,” said Miles.
Equally as impressive as the final result was the timeframe in which the whole project was executed. “From start to finish we removed 7,100 feet of 42-inch belt structure, two 42-in. belt heads, two storage units and then installed 7,100 ft of 84-in. structure and completed the installation of the triple 2,000 hp, 84-in. drive in the middle of slope B. The most amazing thing is this work was done in three weeks. I credit this to proper planning and set up, along with a brilliant execution of the plan by our awesome workforce,” said Hale.
M-Class started into the switchback area at the end of June 2009. There was 2,250 ft of mining in the switchback area, of which approximately 750 ft had to be mined anywhere from 20- to 25-ft high in the area of the discharge from Slope B to Slope A. “We also set a 42-inch drive and storage unit and poured about 3,300 yards of concrete for the massive 84-inch drives,” said Hale.
Hale further credits the tireless work of Darrell Turner, maintenance director, M-Class, who previously worked on Mach’s slope development and Tim Kirkpatrick, manager of safety. “Tim was instrumental in successfully working with all the various governmental agencies to ensure we stayed in compliance the whole way through,” said Hale. Both experienced Illinois miners, Turner and Kirkpatrick were able to share the benefits of being in familiar territory. The whole project was aided too by the coordination and logistical work of Barrett Fox, vice president of operations, M-Class. “My biggest job was transportation, making sure everyone was supplied and ready to go. But a big part of the Foresight work ethic is that you wear a lot of hats so you can get more accomplished. When we began the initial excavation for the slope, we all just jumped in there and dug that hole ourselves. We all did what we needed to do,” said Fox.
“Amazingly, when we started this project, we only had a few people on the team that had ever participated in driving a slope before,” said Hale. Like Mach, the M-Class workforce was very selectively built around a core of less than 40 experienced coal miners from both West Virginia and Illinois. The current workforce of 90 has been further staffed by red hats. “Many of the red hats we brought on started with us while we were driving the slope. Then we trained them to run our equipment. Not only had many of them never seen a coal mine before, most of them hadn’t never seen coal until we hit our seam here,” said Hale.
M-Class has been doing bottom development work since it first hit coal in early 2010. During that time, it has mined 60,497 miner feet in the coal and is currently doing longwall development work for the first panel. The mine’s two development sections are each equipped with two Joy 12-27 continuous miners, three Joy 10 SC-32B shuttle cars, two Fletcher walk through roof bolters, one Fletcher single head bolter and a Bucyrus feeder breaker with an on-board tail piece.
Now functional, the slope and hoist assembly are but a few complete development projects on a long list of outstanding objectives. Soon to come will be assembling the first longwall which will feature Bucyrus shields and face conveyers, but as the year ends, Hale and Miles are working on projections for the Sugar Camp complex’s second “North” longwall. “We’re now designing the belting system for it as well as the new North portal. We’re also working on the addition of another 2,000 tph of capacity on our preparation plant,” said Hale. After less than a year of development work, M-Class crews are 23 breaks developed to the headgate section and are on schedule to fire up the longwall in the fourth quarter of 2011. By the end of the year, M-Class will have produced more than 850,000 tons of raw coal at the Sugar Camp complex. They are currently on track to produce double that many clean tons in 2011.
The Unconventional Macoupin Roars into the New Year
Macoupin Energy, another Foresight subsidiary, bought the Shay No. 1 mine, previously Exxon’s Monterey No. 1, into production in late 2009 and produced more than 160,000 tons after being idled for over a year. Following an extensive rebuilding and rehabilitation regime, 2010 production should exceed 1 million tons. Now upgraded with a new raw coal handling system, larger conventional mining equipment, a new Joy Flexible Conveyer Train (FCT), and armed with a new attitude, MaRyan Mining, which operates the Shay mine for Macoupin, is ready to ramp up toward an expected run rate of more than 3 million tpy in 2011.
According to MSHAs statistics, through the third quarter, the Shay mine, operated by MaRyan Mining, LLC was the most productive conventional mine in the nation, as measured by tons per total man hour (tptmh). With 69 employees, MaRyan had mined 822,000 tons at Shay with a tptmh of 7.47. “We’ve been developing Macoupin’s Shay mine for most of the year. We haven’t even unleashed this mine or our people to see what we all can do. Now that we’re about set up, this monster is going to run,” said MaRyan Superintendent Todd Leverton.
Producing from a reserve base of more than 360 million tons, Macoupin’s 11,000 Btu coal is easily extracted from its 7- to 8-ft high seams.In addition to producing hotter burning coal, Macoupin could also become a supplier of ultra-low chlorine coal. “It’s the best chlorine in the state. It’s perfect for blending,” said Roger Dennison, president, MaRyan.
“I think the intriguing thing about this particular mine for Foresight is Exxon walked away from it. And afterward almost everyone in the industry looked at it and passed. But when he came here, Chris walked every inch of this mine. He even crawled through the rotary breaker himself. He’s a coal miner and he inspected it like one. He evidently saw something the others didn’t see,” said Dennison.
Transforming Monterey into Macoupin
When Ring and Dennison first toured the mine they saw an old property “that was full of potential.” Underground, there are places right off the bottom that were first developed in 1968 but were never roof bolted. “We could still see the bit marks in the top from the day it was cut. That’s how good our limestone top is. But at the same time, we saw a lot of challenges up ahead. We realized we were going to have to rebuild how the raw coal was handled, the prep plant and create a new culture of mining here,” said Dennison.
When Exxon began mining at Monterey, it was a state-of-the-art conventional operation that, over time, transitioned into a longwall operation. But throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, as the market tanked for Illinois Basin coal and operating expenses continued to rise, the world’s largest and most profitable company looked for a way of selling off its last remaining coal property. After almost a year of being shuttered, in order to save the mine, Foresight had MaRyan almost entirely rebuild its infrastructure while recovering and sealing off virtually all of Exxon’s previous development. “MSHA worked really closely with us because they wanted to see the old workings sealed off. They wanted us to have a fresh start here,” said Dennison.
“It was hard to seal up the old mine because of all of the tools and resources we found that we couldn’t take with us. There were two car lifts underground. I’ve never seen one underground, let alone two. There was an oil filter circulating system, an overhead hoist in the shop. They had a 1,000-ton bunker system in the belt line. It was unreal. But now they’re gone, abandoned and sealed up,” said Ring.
Ring and Dennison also encountered an estimated 3 million gallons of water that had to be pumped out. There were also a myriad of older 50-psi seals that needed to be tested and inspected. “We started building new seals as we began the process of cleaning the mine up and recovering a lot of older equipment. We moved up north where we had to take out a lot of old rail and other materials near the area we were planning to develop. It became a huge 24-hour a day undertaking just to get the mine ready for its new life. The amount of seals that needed to be tested, built and rebuilt to a 120-psi standard was a challenge. At one time during the rebuild project, we had four examiners that examined pre-shift to make the rounds. Now we’re down to just one examiner most of the time,” said Ring.
During the rehab process, Monterey’s old prep plant was thoroughly gutted by Ron Davis’ Coalfields Development Group. In between building Williamson and Sugar Camp’s prep plants, Coalfields rebuilt it so virtually only the skin remains from back in the Exxon days. “We estimated it would need about two weeks shakeout after start up to try and work the bugs out of it. But we’ve had virtually no problems with the plant. We just started it up and its run just fine since,” said Ring. Macoupin’s new plant is rated at 750 tph. “Our new clean coal recovery rate is now budgeted at 60% though pretty often we’re bumping up against 70%,” said Ring.
Macoupin also had Coalfield rebuild the mine’s raw coal handling system that in the past had been a factor in limiting Exxon’s production. Though Macoupin is still using some of the old structure, the mine now has 60-inch main belts underground feeding the 48-inch slope belts. “Everything went to a series of raw silos, but they had no ground storage. Today we have space for over 30,000 tons. We rebuilt both the raw and clean coal handling process as well as our train load out. Formerly, they had a 102-car capacity that we’ve upgraded to handle more than 125 cars with the capacity to expand if necessary. Today we can load trains in less than five hours,” said Ring.
While reflecting on all the changes that have occurred at the Macoupin complex in such a short time, Ring can’t hold his excitement back. “Our guys came here, dug into this dirt, pushed everything out of the way, and we came to find that there’s a gold mine sitting right here. Just think, with only a small group of guys, we’re going to totally out-produce what they did with more than 400 people,” said Ring.
Firing Up the FCT
As 2011 begins, MaRyan is preparing to use a new Joy Flexible Conveyor Train, a continuous haulage system that can eliminate many haulage related bottlenecks from most underground continuous miner operations. The FCT has a flexible conveyor and traction system that gives the unit the ability to continuously convey material along its length while simultaneously tramming to follow the continuous miner’s every move, all with only one operator using radio remote control. This reduces the total number of mobile machines and workers in the section. According to Joy, an FCT can convey coal at flow rates of up to 27 tpm.
Macoupin’s 260-ft long model pulls right up to the miner and conveys coal from it back to the main belt. “It’s the newest self advancing model. Our FCT is really a belt on tracks that goes directly behind the miner. Its productivity approaches a longwall in a sense, but it requires a lot less guys,” said Ring.
To accommodate the new FCT, MaRyan’s CM units are now cutting chevron style entries instead of the traditional rectangular room-and-pillar layout. “Instead of being able to handle 90° turns, the FCT requires 60° entries. That’s basically the biggest operating change we made for the FCT,” said Ring. But the jump in productivity will definitely be worth whatever modifications were necessary. “Normally it takes about 25 minutes to take the full 40-ft cut with a the Joy 27 miner and ramp cars we’re using. With the FCT we’re talking about banking on 15 minutes for the same 40-ft cut. That’s a tremendous boost,” said Ring. Foresight also recruited Mike and Jeff Cline to coordinate the FCT operation. Both had experience with FCT sections in Cline’s prior operations.
In total, MaRyan’s workforce operates three Joy 12CM27 continuous miners, two on the super section and one with the FCT, eight Joy (formerly Stamler) scoops, four Fletcher walk-between bolters, a Joy feeder and other higher capacity equipment. “We had trouble getting all of that stuff into the mine and down the slope track. But the new equipment allows us to do what we want,” said Ring.
Now that they’ve trammed it into place at the section, MaRyan is on schedule to fire up the FCT on January 2 of the new year. “We’ll require two Fletcher bolters when the FCT is running. We’ll need to ramp up on bolting to keep up with it. When its working more towards capacity, the FCT will have the same or greater advancement rate as the other conventional miners in the split air,” said Ring.
Building a New Culture of Safety
As MaRyan began ramping up and increasing its staff, it recruited experienced coal miners from all over the region. One of the first on-board was a well-known character from throughout the Illinois coal industry, Roger Dennison. MaRyan’s president and outgoing chairman of the Illinois Coal Association, Dennison grew up in nearby Elkhart. After helping to sink Turris’ shaft, Dennison was one of the first guys hired by Shell as they developed their new mine. Over time, he became its president, helping to foster a shared responsibility mining culture that, decades later, has spread throughout the region. “Roger is a lot of the reason many of us are here,” said Ring. After decades at Turris, now ICG’s Viper mine, Dennison spent time at Peabody’s Gateway mine, helping to rebuild their workforce after the Horizon Energy debacle. “I cut my teeth up at Turris too. We’ve all learned a lot from him,” said Ring.
Shay currently has 82 employees, including some holdovers from Monterery. To staff, MaRyan was able to build around a core of experienced miners lured from almost every other coal mine in Illinois. “Every one of them is a top quality coal miner,” said Ring. And it has also begun hiring inexperienced miners as well. “Our red-hat percentage is between 10% to 15%, relatively low compared to many other mines in the country. We have the advantage of a well mixed mining culture with veterans from many operations. By listening to the lessons these guys have learned from throughout their mining careers, the whole workforce benefits—especially our newest red-hat miners,” said Ring.
While rebuilding the mine, MaRyan’s workforce went 601 days without a lost time accident. Ring credits that record to just “hiring the right people. Safety is a decision made by each individual. Each of us deals with risk. We try to communicate and educate each other as best as possible. When we have close calls or near misses we share those stories with each to better understand what went wrong and how to avoid these incidents going forward. These guys are really proud of the safety record. We’re almost back up to 100 days now. Our new goal is to get beyond 602,” said Ring.
Patton Begins to Roll into Illinois
Foresight’s Energy’s Hillsboro mine complex, operated by Patton Mining, first hit coal on October 28. Now it has a growing stockpile to sample from as they continue to perform bottom development to connect into their air shaft. “We’re looking to start shipping coal in the second quarter of 2011. The longwall is scheduled to commence operations during the first quarter of 2012—in roughly one year from now,” said Francisco.
Francisco came on board at Patton in December 2008, three months before Hillsboro received its final permit. The final layout of the Hillsboro complex’s Deer Run mine was developed by Patton’s own staff. Though today it’s producing small amounts of coal, Francisco said it is on track to produce roughly 900,000 clean tons in 2011. “In 2012, with a partial year of longwall production, we will be at about 6.6 million clean tons,” he said. Going forward, Patton is expected to ramp up toward plus 7 million tpy, “or anywhere from 7.5 to 9.5 million tpy depending market as well as production conditions. Our engineers designed the mine and its layout based upon the volume generated here,” said Francisco.
Like the development at the other Foresight longwall mines, Patton has been directly involved in performing all the necessary work for its 9°, 3,800 ft slope. Though similar to both Williamson and Sugar Camp, Hillsboro’s slope is narrow and tall vs short and wide because of the geology in this part of the state. With an abundance of clay and other materials, our rock is much weaker than Sugar Camp’s, so we’ve adopted an over under/design vs side-by-side,” said Francisco.
Though Hillsboro’s equipment will be roughly the same as what Williamson and Sugar Camp use, Patton will employ a bigger, higher horsepower shear on the Hillsboro longwall “since our faces will be from 8- to 10-ft high as compared to the smaller seam sizes at our sister mines. The 5.5 to 6 clean tons per foot we are expected to produce is greater than the 4.5 to 5 cfpm that will be mined at various places at Sugar Camp and greater still than the 4 to 4.5 cfpm mined at Williamson. All things being equal, we’re expecting 10%-15% more production here out of our longwall,” said Francisco. As currently conceived, Hillsboro’s Bucyrus longwall shields, conveyor and stage loader system will be identical to Sugar Camp and Williamson. “But our shear will be the next generation step up from Foresight’s other mines. We’ll have an 8,200 tph capacity out of this coal mine with sheer speeds that generate 5,500 tons of raw coal per hour off the initial longwall face,” said Francisco.
Hillsboro, like Foresight’s other mines, will feature a 1,400-ft wide longwall face supported by 2-m shields and the average panels will be between 15,000-16,000 ft. “These are pretty much unique to Foresight. We’re probably the only ones in the U.S. doing this kind of longwalling. We’ll use 84-inch main belts. Our slope will let us take pick up trucks down into the mine so we can efficiently drive supplies and manpower down by diesel,” said Francisco.
But not all of Hillsboro’s infrastructure is new. Currently being installed throughout the physical plant are a series of large enclosed conveyor tubes that Foresight acquired from the now scrapped Los Angeles Export Terminal. Going forward and for decades to come, these tubes are going to be used on Hillsboro’s plant feed belt, refuse belt and clean coal belts and several are going to be used at the new Foresight river terminal as well.
At the back end, Hillsboro’s prep plant will be virtually identical to Williamson and Sugar Camp’s plants. Hillsboro’s 2,000 tph prep plant will be capable of loading 3.5 unit trains per day. The mine’s 25,000 ft single rail loop will be capable of holding three unit trains. Hillsboro’s four-hour batch weigh load out will be capable of loading trains at 5,000 tph. “For train loading, we’ll use our own people. Once the trains arrive on property we’ll operate, load them and bring them back out” for the railroads to take on the main lines, said Francisco.
Having shipping options was built into the overall strategy for Hillsboro as well. Once operational, the mine will be able to load and ship to two rail lines, UP and NS. From NS, it’ll be able to tie in to the Evansville Western and the river dock. Hillsboro will also have trucking capability through a batch weight truck load-out.
As the year ends, Hillsboro is cutting through its airshaft and is preparing to start up its main ventilation fan. But just after Christmas, Francisco is looking forward to using Hillsboro’s new 84-inch raw coal stacker. “We’ll soon be transferring our coal to the stock pile area. Underground over the next six months, we’ll be developing gate entries. We will start gate development in April,” he said.
Currently, Patton has hired enough for one development section “and I will be hiring another crew over the next three months. We’re generally looking for people with good, hard working attitudes. I have hired a few experienced miners, but the majority of people we’ve brought on are local folks without a lot of mining experience,” said Francisco. Like the staffing at Foresight’s other longwall mines, Patton is planning on staffing up to 165 employees as they fire up the longwall. “We’ll hire locally when possible, train in house and on the job while building a new culture of coal mining right here,” said Francisco.
Bringing West Virginia Dreams to Illinois
Compared to southern West Virginia, the conditions “we’ll be mining here are a lot closer to Utopia then anything we’ve ever seen before. We’ll have eight-foot seams instead of the 36- to 48-in. seams back east. Our gas here is minimal and roof conditions here, while challenging anywhere in virtually any coal mine, rival those in the east. But clean tons per foot is the name of the game. Using two development units and our longwall, Patton will be running 5.5-6 ctpf at Hillsboro’s Deer Run mine. The Appalachian average is 2.2-2.5 tpf. We’ll be that much more productive than in most of the mines we’ve worked at before,” said Francisco.
Francisco began his mining career as an engineer and came up through the foreman ranks. As he worked at and helped develop many large mines, he eventually earned the title of vice president of underground operations. Prior to joining Foresight, he spent two years as the COO of Magnum Coal.
Throughout the years, he worked directly and closely with Hendrick as well.
After all those years in Appalachia, what lured Francisco to Illinois was what he terms “the opportunity of a lifetime to see what we would never have gotten to see from a greenfield, reserve or a conditions perspective back home. You’d never put an 84-inch belt in a mine in southern West Virginia nor develop a 1,400-ft face on a longwall,” he said.
Patton Marches Forward Like Sherman to the Sea
Though scheduled to produce 8 million tpy from one longwall, the overall plan is for Patton to develop a second longwall at the Hillsboro complex if market conditions call for it. “This mine could facilitate two longwalls over the next three years. Depending on where we want to put it, we have the opportunity to go in our current portal and use our existing slope for the second longwall or we can actually put in another greenfield portal,” said Francisco, as he counted down the eight longwalls Foresight is currently planning to develop. “One at Williamson, four at Sugar Camp and two or three here.”
However, with well over a billion clean tons to extract from, Hillsboro’s reserve could support several future mines. “Looking long term, and way beyond what we have on the drawing board today, we could have maybe four mines in this reserve. Mine No. 2 could easily attach to our current infrastructure. Mines No. 3 and No. 4 could be identical to what we’re currently building. It’s a thought, not on the drawing board yet, but not that far away from coming to fruition if demand is there,” said Francisco.
As the first coal starts to pile up at Hillsboro, Francisco’s beginning to think of the future. “We might call our next mine ‘MacArthur or maybe ‘Eisenhower,’” he said. But after considering all those longwalls Foresight has planned, “Sherman” might be a more appropriate name.
Buchsbaum is a Denver-based freelance writer and photographer specializing in industrial subjects. He can be reached through his Web site at www.lmbphotography.com or by phone at 303-746-8172.