These are uncertain times for many in the coal business. Price swings for both thermal- and metallurgical-grade coals are disrupting plans. As markets shift, coal operators need to be prepared to both make ends meet by optimizing operations or even idling production, but also be ready to bring production back online if an opportunity presents itself. Caught in the middle of this are the people and communities that support these operations who are frustrated by a lack of financial security. There is little mine and plant managers can do about the prevailing macroeconomic conditions. The best they can hope for is to keep a mining operation viable. The primary approaches available to them are to strive for the lowest production costs and to foresee and avoid catastrophic failure.

Mining companies are willing to make an investment if they have the capital and they can justify the expense. They need to be able to show a return on that investment. Two articles in this edition of Coal Age present investment ideas: Haul Truck Maintenance (see p. 26) and Conveyors (see p. 15). Both consider an investment to improve existing operations. One involves developing strategies for regular maintenance activities and the other discusses a major capital project.

The Haul Truck Maintenance article reviews prevailing theories among maintenance professionals. The piece also discusses the advancements in technology with the trucks and how it relates to ongoing maintenance. It also reports on recent major upgrades implemented by a few miners. The major takeaway is that the most important aspect of a top-notch maintenance program is well-trained technicians.

The Conveyor article shows readers that you can teach old dogs or coal miners new tricks. Two mines in the Illinois Basin replaced miles of older conveyor networks with a single, larger, more-sophisticated system. In one case, an operator opted for a horizontal curve instead of the multiple flights. These investments replaced aging systems and eliminated maintenance headaches and that will reduce production costs for the long-term.

The free-floating variable that worries most mine operators is catastrophic failure. Coal refuse impoundments (See Refuse Disposal, p. 20) are one of these liabilities. An improperly sized impoundment could limit production and  excessive production could overwhelm it. While the article debunks the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events, the reality is that heavier rainfall is associated with a warming climate. The original engineering work for those tailings dams that were designed 15 or 20 years ago is likely still adequate. Reviewing those designs against new heavier rainfall amounts, however, might be a worthwhile
exercise. Enjoy this edition of Coal Age.