By David Gambrel
International coal salesmen sometimes learn the hard way (quality penalties) the coal received by the foreign buyer is not the coal they intended to ship. Mysteriously, the coal became contaminated before it got to the customer. What happened, and will it happen again?
Raw coal is usually crushed and sized; it may include impurities found in situ, namely fire clay and various forms of slate and shale. Washed coal should be relatively free of impurities. The coal salesman should know the quality of the coal he is selling because his company’s laboratory should have tested many samples. Knowing the quality assumes, of course, that nothing has happened to the coal between the time it was tested and the time it was loaded into the ship. This can be a very naïve assumption.
How was the coal loaded into barges or rail cars? Did it go directly from a preparation plant into a coal silo and from the silo into a rail car or barge? If so, it doesn’t seem there would be much contamination. On the other hand, if the coal was stockpiled on muddy ground near a railroad track and loaded into rail cars with a front-end loader, there is a reasonable expectation it will become contaminated with mud. This would be un-intentional contamination. The mine operator might very well be saving the one-time cost of a concrete stockpile base, but getting repeated Btu penalties for contaminating his own coal.
What could possibly happen to rail coal on the way to the terminal? Occasionally railroad track crews have thrown old spikes and other waste into railroad cars and these are sometimes found clinging to the magnetic separators on the conveyor belts at terminals. One prominent rail-served terminal has reported finding such unusual items as a flattened 55-gallon drum, a set of deer antlers, and a dead man in silo-loaded trains. One could almost justify a flattened oil barrel and the deer could have been thrown in by anyone, but the dead man is a mystery.
Barge-originated exports are confined primarily to mines serving the Upper Ohio River and the Port of New Orleans, mines serving Southern Appalachia and the Port of Mobile, and to a lesser extent, western mines serving the Mississippi/ Ohio River Systems and the Port of New Orleans. Most of these mines will have an initial truck or rail haul to a barge terminal. In the context of ocean shipping, the Port of New Orleans extends from the Head of Passes to Baton Rouge, the final 200-mile stretch of the Lower Mississippi River. This stretch will accommodate vessels of Panamax and sometimes Capesize capacities.
One opportunity for unintentional contamination occurs right at the stockpile area of the barge loading terminal. In large modern terminals coal is dumped from rail cars or trucks into hoppers and conveyed out to a stockpile area via a system of conveyor belts. If the stockpile area has a compromised base (soil, waste coal, sea shells, etc.), one should expect to find some of these contaminants in the coal loaded into barges. Front-end loaders, bulldozers and other equipment used to push coal into the reclaim hoppers will inadvertently push in some of the base material, the amount being a function of how soft the base material has been made by precipitation, and how careful the equipment operator is. Some terminals avoid the addition of base contamination by having a concrete base.
Precipitation and leaky barges provide an opportunity to get rain or snow mixed in with the coal. Covered barges are used primarily for grain, but may also be ordered for coal shipments. They invariably cost more, but may be worth the additional cost to keep water out of the coal as it goes downriver. Modern terminals load barges so that coal almost fills the entire void, but crane-loading operations usually leave the coal in conical piles with parts of the barge bottom uncovered. The latter are much more likely to form water puddles around the base of the coal piles, a constituent of acid production and spontaneous combustion. Ship loading terminals on the Lower Mississippi River have reported barges arriving with small coal fires around the base of such poorly-loaded piles in barges.
Intentional Coal Contamination
Layer-loading is a serious and intentional method of selling inferior product to an unsuspecting broker. It can happen with railcars, trucks or barges, and it usually works like this. The broker may be shown a stockpile of clean coal and given a sheet of good “test results.” The broker signs a purchase agreement and goes back to his office, confident he has made a good deal. If the coal is to be hauled to the ship-loading terminal in railcars, the original coal seller has one main chance to do his dirty work. He loads the bottom of each rail car with coal waste, and puts good coal on top. He believes it will not be noticed in the rail dumper building, and he is frequently right. The layered coal will usually go undetected unless it is just so nasty it sticks to the rail car, the grizzly or the hopper. The person who sold the coal to the broker will deny everything.
Layer-loading barges may involve loading several rail cars of coal waste into the bottom of a barge followed by more cars of good coal on top, thus providing the 1,500 tons the normal barge hauls. The shady operator puts the bad stuff on the bottom. He knows coal sampling may take place one of two ways several weeks later, when the barges arrive at the terminal. If the testing company sends a sampling man on board the loaded barge, he will usually dig a shallow hole to get his sample, and will not dig deep into the bad material on the bottom of the barge. If the coal is off-loaded to a stockpile area, it will usually not be sampled until it is reclaimed for ship loading. The bad guy is then home free. He can claim the terminal contaminated the coal, and no one can prove otherwise.
What Should be Done to Minimize Coal Contamination?
The transportation executive is arguably responsible for quality control once the coal leaves the mine. There are four sites of contamination he must deal with: (1) at his mine, (2) at the barge or rail loading terminal, (3) on the rail car or barge, and (4) at the ship loading terminal. He must deal with every single site at least once, and must constantly monitor all sites. If his company is also brokering coal, he has another set of dimensions to cover with contributory producers.
First, he needs to make sure all of his company sources of coal contamination are minimized or eliminated completely. He needs to inspect the rail or barge loading terminals he uses, and make sure those facilities minimize the addition of contaminants. At the ship-loading terminals he should develop a thorough knowledge of the facility and ask what kinds of contamination have been found in rail cars or barges. If he learns some contamination is caused by rail workers, for example, he needs to make sure the railroad knows about it. If he learns barges are arriving with spontaneous combustion, he needs to talk this over with the barge company responsible.
Hire a Good Testing Company
Without belaboring the reason for this, hire an independent testing company, not one working for the carrier or for another shipper using part of your ship’s capacity. Go over every concern with him: arrival of layered or contaminated coal, base material contamination, how and when the coal is sampled as it is reclaimed from barges, and/or terminal stockpiles. As in the case of the private shipping agent, pay them well and make them part of your team. Meet with them often to review your shipments and what they have found.
Gambrel is the president of Logisticon, a coal transportation consultancy. He was senior transportation executive for a major mining company for 15 years, and was also in charge of the company’s ocean shipping program. He was responsible for the chartering and port management of more than 50 Panamax and Capesize vessels. His ocean shipping department accumulated a net despatch record on these vessels. He has acted as adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard and has helped IMO/SOLAS draft guidelines for the safe carriage of coal by sea. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com