By Lee Buchsbaum, Associate Editor and Photographer
On August 14, Foresight Energy’s Deer Run mine, operated by Patton Mining, flipped a switch and turned the mine’s massive longwall on commencing operations. Since then it has rapidly become one of the top producing mines in both the Illinois Basin and the nation. Like its two sister longwall mines, Sugar Camp’s MC No. 1 and Mach Mining’s Pond Creek operation to the south and the conventional Shay mine to the west, Patton’s small workforce, aided by cutting edge technology, uses some of the most advanced hardware to safely and efficiently churn out a tremendous volume of coal. Already producing more than 600,000 clean tons a month by the end of September, as Patton fully matures it will be capable of producing more than 9 million tons a year if the market demand is there. In fact, with a reserve base of approximately 900 million tons, the mine is designed to operate up to three longwalls at a time. Even more impressive is the built in cost structure, dedication to safety and spirit of the new workforce.
When Coal Age previously visited Patton for the December 2010 issue, the mine’s first crews were still driving the slope after finally intersecting with the 9-ft thick Herrin No. 6 coal seam, the prep plant’s structural supports were being welded together, and Mine President Dwayne Francisco’s office was at the back end of a construction trailer. The last of three greenfield longwall operations and just one component in the $1.8 billion Illinois Basin investment made by Foresight Energy, today the mine is not only up and running, but getting ready to vie with sister Foresight Illinois Basin mines for the title of most productive longwall operation nationwide, particularly as measured by tons per man hour.
During the three-year build-out period beginning in May 2009, Patton did most of the construction work in house. “We drove our own slope, reaching the bottom in late 2010. Since then, we’ve had very good success driving the gateroads. We finished those in late July and started the shearer for the first time on August 4. All of our belts, conveyors and components, including the 27,000 ft rail loop are now complete. We are in full operation,” said Francisco, one of the proud designers of the mine operation and layout.
On this visit in October 2012, Patton was marking two months of longwall operation. The longwall was averaging 65-ft a day while being operated by new green crews, many of whom had never even seen a longwall in operation prior to being hired. They also had a miner section running two development shifts per day, moving belt and power six days per week as well. Staffing-wise, by mid-October, Patton was up to about 144 employees with a target workforce of 175 when another development unit comes online. “I’ve got one unit right now just turning up into Headgate No. 2. In the next couple months, I’m going to be starting the main section as you come down to Headgate No. 3,” said Francisco. Patton runs three production shifts a day on the longwall, five days a week. Crews perform their own routine maintenance and service on production shifts. Heavy maintenance and power moves are performed on Saturdays. “We’re strictly five days a week right now on production, six days a week for the development units. We have to make sure we’re staying ahead. The guys have already been up in the mid-90-ft-per-day range. We’ve reached the 60,000 raw tons per day level already.”
Built Tough, Engineered forExcellence & High Productivity
Patton is built to be resilient and to handle huge volumes of raw coal. “There are four physical things in coal mining that can take a mine down: lack of air, lack of water, belt failure and power failure. If any one of those items stop working, then you’re down. Most of the time if something breaks, you fix it, you move it out of the way, you go on. But not if those four shut you down. We have addressed this by ensuring that we have large water mains coming here with a lot of storage capacity. We have big power here. Our 84-inch slope belts can handle more than 8,500 tons per hour (tph). For air, we have a 117-inch Jeffery fan that can pull 1 million cubic feet per minute (cfm) at 20 inches of water gauge as well as big fans in the back that can really lower the gob pressure and move air. We are covered,” said Francisco.
Patton has three high voltage circuits underground. The belts, miner units and the longwall are all on separate power sources. “We can isolate either one of those at any moment while keeping power on the others. Conversely, not one interferes with the other,” said Francisco. With a 9- to 10-ft minimum height throughout, employees are allowed to drive modified Dodge pickups underground. Supplying crews is also much easier. “We use Fletcher diesel tractors to haul supplies. I can take fully assembled belt drives, load them and take them underground.”
All of Patton’s operating systems, the big belts, ventilation and water are all controlled with PLCs. “Every belt drive we’ve got on the property is controlled by a variable frequency drive [VFD] that can run from zero to up to 650 fpm with a stroke of a mouse. Everything’s monitored via computer. Our fan is totally PLC controlled, from vibration monitoring and heat monitoring on the bearings to video cameras that watch the coal come from the longwall all the way outside,” said Francisco.
Though mainly comprised of Caterpillar components, Patton’s longwall system uses a Joy shearer. “Basically it’s a template of the [longwalls] Sugar Camp and Mach/Pond Creek mine, also known as Williamson, use except for the fact that we run the next larger generation 7LS5 shearer here. It also has 75-inch drums versus the 65-inch that the other mines run. It’s just a bigger, more robust machine. It’s about 60,000 lb heavier than the other machines, but we have the height to run it. Right now we’re mining about 9-ft, though we’ve got about 8-ft of coal. Almost all of the panels in the first district that we’re in will be between 15,000- to 16,000-ft long,” said Francisco. On the longwall development section, Patton also employs Joy 12/27 miners, 10SC32B shuttle cars, and Fletcher CHDDR roofbolters with the man ups.
All of the mine’s rock dust is trucked in and bulk stored in a 150-ton bin. It is transferred straight through to the mine via bore holes down into 20-ton diesel rock dusters. “One man can load a 20-ton duster in about 3 minutes, take off and start dusting,” said Francisco.
Throughout the mine, much of the roof control Patton does is both extensive and expensive. “We wire mesh everything for several reasons. The first is safety. We have a main roof made up of limestone mixed with siltstone, shales and sometimes even clay under that. This makes up the first 1- to 4-ft thickness of the immediate roof above us. It weathers terribly. With the mesh installed, instead of a 6- to 8-inch piece of rock falling and hitting one of my miners from 9- to 10-ft high—which is truly an accident—we catch it in the mesh. The other thing is production efficiency. Whatever falls on the ground, you’ve got to scrape and scoop up and get rid of it. You’re also re-bolting because your plates are all loose now. Williamson learned this lesson and we’ve incorporated it here. We all realized that the money you spend on mesh pays for itself tenfold by saving the time you used up doing those other jobs,” said Francisco.
Patton even installs the mesh on the ribs. “You have a 9-ft rib turn over—that’s a little different from West Virginia where you only have a 4-ft rib. We have rib control in our plan but we go above and beyond it. Like Williamson, we put angle brackets in where needed and we install more rib bolts than most mines. We will also deploy cable bolts if we find an area where we can’t anchor our normal primary bolts into the limestone. From a supply perspective, my highest cost at this mine is our roof control,” said Francisco.
Patton produces a relatively high-sulfur coal with a calorific value of 10,800 Btu/lb. “It’s got its own kind of niche demand. Us being very, very new to the market, we’ve got a lot of power plants testing our coal and seeing if they like it. Our salespeople are travelling worldwide to help move it. At our docks, we blend a lot of our coal with Williamson and Sugar Camp’s product. We also blend some of it with the Macoupin or Shay mine.
Other differences between Williamson, Sugar Camp and Patton are the coal heights. “Williamson has 6 ft of coal, Sugar Camp has 7 ft, and we have 8t ft. We’re allowed to run the bigger shearer here and the belt systems are larger: 84-inches on the raw coal stacker, slope and underground mainline belts. Also, we have a 72-inch panel belt from the longwall out while they only run 60-inch belts. So we have the capacity to bring 8,500 tph raw out of the mine,” said Francisco.
Coal Preparation & Shipment
Also built in house by Foresight’s construction contractor, Coalfield Services, Patton’s four-circuit prep plant uses heavy media vessels, heavy media cyclones and spirals to process 2,000 raw tons per hour. The new plant only began to process seven days a week in October. “We run four 12-hr crews there working five days on, and three off with an overlapping maintenance day. We do maintenance at the plant 12 hours a week and run the other six and a half days,” said Francisco.
When the coal is ready to be shipped, Patton’s batch weigh certified load out system is capable of loading 15,000-ton trains in less than four hours. “We’ve loaded up to three unit trains in one day so far,” said Francisco.
Crews also built a 27,000-foot rail loop with direct Union Pacific rail service. and then constructed a 7-mile rail spur to the south where they access the Norfolk Southern. The loadout also has truck loading capability. Initial transportation optimization is only one part of the strategy. Once the railroad brings trains to the mine, Patton employs a local contractor to load them. From the mine, the majority of loaded trains are sent to the Foresight’s Sitran Ohio River transload terminal in southern Indiana or heads down to the Foresight controlled export terminal in Convent, La., on the Gulf of Mexico. At the moment, Francisco estimates that 60% of the coal is shipped to either of the docks with the rest going to either local or regional customers. With three immediate loading options, plus controlled river access through Foresight Energy’s haulage agreement with the Evansville Western Railroad, and Gulf transport through special rates Canadian National Railway rates, no other U.S. coal producer has this many transportation choices further ensuring lowered delivered costs to customers.
Learning to Operate Lean, but not at all Mean
Francisco, similar to much of Foresight’s core longwall operators, is from Appalachia. An eastern Kentucky native and proud U.K. grad, he is a veteran of the “old style” Massey Energy and a former executive with Magnum Coal. Francisco and several handpicked members of the crew that he brought here with him were all trained in the highly competitive, but constrained Central Appalachian coalfields. “It’s been challenging for myself and the management staff that I brought because we’ve never seen these kinds of volumes. In West Virginia, we had mine rail operations, hard cutting conditions, high reject, lots of gas, bad water, bad roof, undulation, and often had to contend with the interaction between over-mining and under-mining. But today, we’re sitting here with nothing above us and nothing below us. We have no water problems, no gas problems, and an easily accessible reserve that we can drive into. It’s an incredible opportunity,” said Francisco.
But Foresight still designed its operations to be low cost, with a lean and committed workforce capable of multi- tasking on various fronts. “As we put this mine—and the entire fleet together, we were definitely incorporating the lessons learned from the cyclical marketplace in the East where, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the coal market was in a very deep trough like it’s in right now. Many of us found ourselves in high cost situations when that market dipped. We had to make some hard choices. We had to lay off people, cut wages and benefits. Today, we have positioned ourselves here to be the lowest cost producer every day and we do that. Together, even though market has dipped, the Foresight operations can still be the lowest cost producers in the region. All of us, and Chris Cline in particular, already had that mind set when we came out here. You don’t wait. You don’t get fat when the coal market’s $300/ton for metallurgical coal, or $80/ton in the Illinois Basin. You stay lean all the time. Cline has built this company on the assumption that it will be the lowest cost producer, period,” said Francisco.
When you visit a Foresight mine, the first thing that strikes you is the lack of people running around the offices. Almost everyone is underground. “When I say I’ll have 175 employees at full stroke here that includes the plant, everyone underground, accounting, security and our cleaning service. Every one. I just came up from the longwall and wouldn’t be here right now if Coal Age hadn’t been coming,” he said.
Underground, Francisco runs a pretty tight ship too. “I don’t have belt people because my belts don’t spill. You engineer them to hold the capacity that you’re trying to put on them. They are remotely monitored via video. We also have no out-by people as it relates to belts. We have a fireboss, one per shift, who firebosses the entire mine. How do we maintain the out-by? I have 20-ton bulk rock dusters that can put down its load in about 30 minutes and return for another load. I can feed them and load them in three minutes. They’re being pulled by a Fletcher diesel tractor and do not run out of electricity—you don’t have to charge the batteries. We’ve set the roads up so they can all get to where they need to go,” he said.
Longwall crews are comprised of 10 people: two shearer operators, a jack man, a headgate operator, a boss, two maintenance guys and a headgate operator. There are also two utility guys who take out structure, build monorail, stoppings and whatever needs to be done up on the face. Additionally, Patton has three-five man construction crews who help with ventilation, and various special projects. When necessary, mine management—including Francisco, aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, pour concrete or do whatever it takes.
What about supply? “I have one supply man per each shift. He uses a Fletcher tractor and the road is graded so that he can run up to 20 miles per hour with a big load of supplies. When he gets there, he’s got a diesel-powered Bobcat and he unloads the supplies in bulk pallet form, takes it to an area, drops it off, brings trash back outside and the process starts all over again. You don’t have waste. Who else do you need in a coal mine? I’ve got my mine manager; I’ve got a chief electrician; I move my belt on the midnight shift. I don’t have anybody sitting outside. I’ve got two guys, one in the day and one in the evening, who load supplies outside, take care of the yard, and unload the supplies coming in. I’ve got three AMS operators that monitor the heartbeat of the mine: the gas, the CO, all of the tracking systems and in handing out lights. They also help with the warehouse and outlights. Other than that there’s me. I’ve got one assistant, and she takes care of the reports, and that’s all of us,” said Francisco.
“That dedication and our leanness in manpower are the keys to 25-tons per man hour goal. You can’t have people you don’t use every day. I don’t have a maintenance planner and I don’t have a safety director; everybody here is a safety director. I’ve got 110 of them that go underground every day. Though being low cost doesn’t necessarily make you popular, I’d rather be unpopular then have to tell my guys that they don’t have a job anymore,” said Francisco.
Building & Training the New Patton Workforce
Though Patton started off with an experienced core crew of 20, they began hiring new crews afterwards so they could be trained “in our methods. We started off with 21 guys when we were driving the slope. They became the first crew underground and we added only enough people who we could train. We didn’t put on two crews at the same time. We only staffed one section at a time. When the other crews came on, we broke that first crew up and they became mentors to those who followed,” said Francisco.
The name of the mine is a reflection both of Francisco’s love of military history and also his operating ethic. Few military leaders were as capable, courageous, tenacious and respected as World War II’s General George S. Patton. And few were as resourceful. “You didn’t tell him how to do things. You just told him what you wanted and allowed him to surprise you with his ingenuity. That’s how we do things here. Prior to a shift beginning, we talk every day about safety. We make sure that everyone at the mine knows exactly what we’re doing today. We call a play every morning and every evening. We say a prayer and then we go underground. Additionally, my management staff and I are on every section every day. I may not get to everyone every day, but one or more of my guys do. We’re in constant contact with our crews. We see what they need; see what’s giving them trouble; see how we can improve; see what they’re doing wrong; see what we’re leaving behind; see what we can do to help them with their jobs and then we help them every way we can. We are a team,” said Francisco.
As Patton continues to staff up, it is trying to attract a few more experienced and inexperienced miners. “You always look for that person who’s the all-star running back that you can comfortably hand the ball off to. But I have found that I would rather take inexperienced people with a great work ethic and put them beside a person who’s been here for a year and they teach them our way. I’ve found this type of mentoring to be very rewarding and productive. Though we brought some folks with us and picked up some studs from Indiana and elsewhere, over 85% of our people are from within a five county radius of Patton. They’ve never had a great job. They’ve never had insurance, 401Ks, production bonuses, safety bonuses, clean clothes laundered for them every day, fresh hot water every evening and towels provided for them. I want our curtains to be hung properly. I want the mine scooped, cleaned and fully rock dusted—not a wink and a nod. The workforce here has absolutely bought into that operating philosophy. The mine in turn has become a possession of theirs. You’re not going to come in and change that mentality, and the workforce won’t risk that. Once you establish that culture, you keep the ball rolling and trust that they won’t allow anything other than that kind of mentality going forward,” said Francisco.
Taking Advantage of New Technology
From the beginning, Foresight’s management put a large emphasis on taking advantage of the latest technology available, particularly technology that allows the mine to operate leaner and more efficiently. “Going back to the PLCs and the VFDs, there’s a lot of up front capital that not a lot of people have the appetite for. But that pays huge back end dividends in the way you operate. We have dial up systems where an engineer from our vendor in Price, Utah—Intermountain Electric—the constructor of our longwall electrical boxes—can sit at his computer and pull up my longwall electrical boxes and look at them. He can troubleshoot with us if something goes wrong. Instead of putting a guy on a plane at 4 a.m., he can roll out of bed with his laptop and tell me the issue. He can put my electrician right on the problem. It’s the same with the shearer, all of our belt systems and our PLCs. Even more than that, I can check on the amps of my shearer and my head drive from my iPhone. I can turn my belt off, speed it up or slow it down from my couch in Kentucky. It’s amazing. That said, if you hit the wrong key, you can shut down the whole mine. But what have we learned and what have we done is to embrace this technology. We continue to work proactively to adapt, adopt and find ways to stay ahead of the curve,” said Francisco.
While there are plans on the books to eventually build a second longwall and potentially another one after that, all operations are market driven. “But we have built our slope and laid out this mine in such a way that we can move forward with those plans. But with those volumes, we would need to make some surface adjustments, especially if a third longwall came on line. Again, those decisions are all determined by the demand for our coal. We have a tremendous reserve here, coupled with the ability to be the low cost provider of a superior fuel source. If folks want the coal, we’ll mine it and ship it to them, and at a better price than our competitors,” said Francisco.