by caroline schweitzer
Winters in Healy, Alaska, aren’t for the fainthearted. Located just outside Denali National Park and Preserve, the daylight is short, and the cold lingers into spring. Sometimes, temperatures plummet to as low as -60°F. Amidst these harsh temperatures, the work must go on at Usibelli Coal Mine.
“We work in extreme conditions,” said Alex Legrismith, Usibelli mining engineer. “Steel can shatter in these low temperatures.”
Not only does the work continue through the winter, but for Usibelli, it’s peak season.
“The middle of the winter is our largest production time,” Legrismith said. “Fairbanks is just up the road, and it’s the coldest city in the United States. Our coal keeps Fairbanks warm.”
Usibelli is a family-owned mine started in 1943 by Emil Usibelli. Not only does the mine singlehandedly heat Fairbanks, but its production has increased steadily through the years. Today, the mine outputs 1.2 million to 2 million tons of coal per year.
“We’re all about production,” Legrismith said. “And we’ve worked to make our operation as efficient as possible to output more high-quality coal.”
Productivity Through Reliability
Usibelli utilizes one powerful Hitachi excavator — an EX1900-6 — to output about 50% of the mine’s production. The machine was purchased in 2012 and has been a workhorse ever since.
“It’s just so reliable,” said Robert Bohanon, Usibelli operator. “I’ve run plenty of other machines. The Hitachi is smoother and has more power.”
Legrismith echoed the machine’s reliability.
“Our EX1900 excavator is one of the most reliable pieces of equipment we have on the mine,” he said. “It’s had almost no mechanical issues. It’s always running. Its motto should really be, ‘Productivity through reliability.’”
With a customized 19.5-cubic-yard bucket, it not only boasts big productivity, but also a comfortable working environment.
“With our operators spending so much time in the cab, it’s important that the cab is comfortable,” Legrismith said. “With the EX1900, the ergonomics and visibility from the cab are much better than other pieces of equipment.”
The comfort of this machine’s cab has become a bit legendary on the site.
“As the story goes, our primary coal loading operator, who has been here for over 30 years now, says the EX1900 is the only machine that doesn’t leave him with a stiff neck at the end of the day,” Legrismith said. “I think the visibility is so much better than other machines, and it runs smoother, which leaves our operators feeling way better.”
Thinking of Tomorrow, Today
Working in conjunction with the EX1900-6, drone surveying has recently revolutionized Usibelli’s mining process, streamlining it for efficiency and quality. Legrismith spearheaded the efforts to bring drone surveying to the mine and has experienced positive results since.
“Drone surveying is safer and more efficient,” Legrismith said. “Before, we used GPS and had to walk around, getting to the crests by foot. Now, we just set out some control points and fly the drone. The result is a perfect survey of the area in very little time.”
One of the biggest advantages to drone surveying is to pinpoint where the “good coal” is located so operators can dig in more precisely. This is especially important in Usibelli’s challenging environment.
“We’re mining coal that has a parting or ‘seam’ about halfway through it,” Legrismith said. “The drone survey allows us to have great elevation control and hone-in on where this parting is, and where it will be projected in the future. All of this quality variation occurs within 30 feet. We’ve got our Hitachi excavator in these pits, and it’s been doing great because we’ve been able to selectively mine the coal.”
While this drone surveying push is a great advancement, Legrismith is always looking ahead, eager to utilize technology and keep the mine moving forward.
“Next, I would love to see machine control, or have an autonomous truck,” Legrismith said.
So far, Legrismith has only noticed one downside.
“I used to get some exercise surveying and getting outside,” Legrismith smiled. “But then I got the drone and need to get to the gym.”
Excavators for Last Frontier
As Legrismith anticipates the future of mining, there’s one piece of equipment he wants to see stick around for years to come.
“With the performance we’ve seen from the Hitachi, we trust the brand,” Legrismith said. “The next piece of equipment I would love to see here at Usibelli Coal Mine is another Hitachi shovel. I think for the mining we have coming up in the next five to 10 years, it would be perfect for us.”
When Usibelli decides to purchase equipment, they turn to their dealer, Construction Machinery Industrial (CMI).
“Our relationship with CMI has been wonderful,” Legrismith said. “They’ve done nothing but stick by us. They are always extremely fast in getting us what we need to keep us running, and they know the community and mining industry.”
Working with a company that values the community connection is no surprise, as Usibelli has gained brand recognition locally by giving back through sponsoring scholarships and grants to more than 80 organizations annually.
“Growing up in Alaska, you learn to love it and its community,” Legrismith said. “It’s the last frontier, and it takes a special type of person to love the lifestyle.”
Luckily for Legrismith, he’s found the right fit at a company with more than 115 employees who live for the community and outdoor atmosphere like him.
“We’ve been family-owned and run for going on 76 years now,” he said. “Working here is like working for a giant family.”
Usibelli Coal Mine is serviced by Construction Machinery Industrial LLC, Fairbanks, Alaska. Check out the video at HitachiConstruction.com/usibelli. This article first appeared in Hitachi’s BREAKOUT magazine, Spring 2020 issue.