By Lee Buchsbaum, Associate Editor & Photographer

Where the River View complex is situated today, four years ago there was a quiet strip of land along the Ohio River.

Construction began in July 2007 and on August 17, 2009, Alliance Resources Partner’s River View mine produced its first load of coal. By the end of the year, it produced 500,000 tons. In 2010, the mine’s first year of full operation, production increased to more than 5.8 million tons of clean coal. Since then, River View has evolved into the most productive continuous miner operation in the Illinois Basin. “Within a matter of 10 months, demand and market conditions allowed us to ramp up to 8 continuous miner units. Today we’re producing at a rate of over a million tons per month,” said Heath Lovell, general manager, River View Coal, LLC.

As of December 31, 2010, the River View mine currently controls, either through coal leases or direct ownership, 128.5 million tons of proven and probable high-sulfur coal in the Kentucky Nos. 7, 9 and 11 coal seams underlying properties located primarily in Union County, Ky., as well as certain surface properties, assets and permits. The River View prep plant has a raw feed capacity of 1,800 tons per hour (tph). Coal produced from the River View mine is transported by overland belt to a barge loading facility on the Ohio River.

The mine cuts coal from two seams simultaneously, the Kentucky Nos. 9 and 11, at two different levels. The No. 11 seam intersects the 425-ft shaft at 270 ft. The No. 9 seam sits at 405 ft. The average coal quality is similar to most Illinois Basin coals, roughly 11,600 Btu/lb with 5 lb-SO2/mmBtu. Production from both levels travel on the same slope belt and then on the overland belt to the prep plant. No attempt is made to segregate the No. 9 and No. 11 seam since their respective properties are so similar.

The un-mined No. 7 seam lies beneath the lowest current workings. “We control part of it. One day, if market conditions call for it, we may choose to mine the No. 7 but for now we are concentrating on the 9 and 11 seams,” said Lovell. “The No. 7 seam is generally about 4- to 6-inches thinner than the No. 9 seam and slightly higher in chlorine, but other than that, they are very similar.”

The deposit over which River View is situated is the only area in Western Kentucky where the No. 7 is thick enough to be economically mined. “Everywhere else in Western Kentucky, the frequently mined No. 6 seam, or Dekoven, is thicker. For whatever reason, in this 5-mile radius, the No. 7 thickened up and the No. 6 seam thinned out. This is really the only place we believe it’s minable,” said Lovell.

River View transports all of its clean coal to the river by conveyor. When Alliance was planning the mine, it decided against building a truck dump or a rail spur to Henderson, Ky., the nearest rail head. While that limits River View’s transportation options, the mine’s direct river access fills what had been a gap in Alliance’s overall Illinois Basin product line. “All of our other Illinois Basin mines have rail and/or truck options. But River View is the only mine in the fleet that has the option of direct barge loading at the mine. The other mines can either truck it or rail it to the river, often to our Mt. Vernon, Indiana Ohio River dock. But we’re loading straight from the mine mouth to the barge. Now if a customer wants river coal, we are a very attractive source,” said Lovell.

During the Great Flood of 2011, the Ohio River jumped its banks for hundreds of miles, knocking out barge traffic throughout the inland waterway system. But even with water almost overtopping the loading cells, River View’s dock was able to load coal. “During the worst period, we would not tie the barges to the cells. Instead the harbor boat would take it back to the line boat.  While some other docks use this technique, known as ‘stand by loading,’ we typically only use it at extremely high water levels. Because of it and the dedication of our barge crew, we made it through. For a short while when the water was at its highest, we were the only dock south of the Green River still loading coal,” said Lovell.

Ventilation, Mine Set Up & Equipment
Ventilating two different levels simultaneously can be challenging. River View uses one 10-ft high pressure fan capable of moving 850,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) to ensure fresh air is always circulating properly. River View makes an initial split at the main shaft and the mine’s slope serves as an intake airway.

The mine’s 15- x 15-ft slope is roughly 1,600 ft long, and reaches bottom at a grade of 16°. An 8-inch concrete deck divides the slope into two compartments. The bottom compartment uses a hoist to lower equipment into the mine.  Crews and supplies can go down the slope, but currently they enter the mine via the shaft. A 72-inch Fenner Dunlop slope belt driven by four 1,000-hp motors hauls raw coal in the top compartment.

All of River View’s belt drives are equipped with Variable Frequency Drives (VFDs). The 54-inch mainline conveyors use four 300-hp motors. Generally all of these belts run at 700 ft per minute (fpm), but the VFD controls could increase that speed to 800 fpm.

Eight 42-inch feeder belts clear coal from the continuous miner section. Each feeder is driven by a 200-hp motor with VFD belt drives. “The VFDs allow us to maintain the speed of the belts. We can slow them if a chute plugs or spillage occurs. The VFDs also help with cold start-ups by ensuring the belts start slowly and ramp up to full speed,” said Lovell.
Most belts are equipped with both a primary and secondary cleaner. “We use the Richwood wiper systems throughout the mine.  Their wiper blades last longer and do a better job cleaning the belts than other types we’ve used. On our system, you can turn a regulator and easily adjust the belt wiper pressure. It would amaze people how little belt shoveling we do.

Most people wouldn’t believe it. We maintain the equipment to hold spillage to a minimum,” said Ricky Brown, mine superintendent, River View mine. As much as possible, River View’s management team has attempted to standardize the mine’s equipment, particularly the belts, belt drives, shuttle cars and continuous miners. “Our overland belts use the same motors, reducers and other components as our underground belts,” said Brown.

Super Sections
Each of the mine’s eight super sections are centered around Joy 14CM15 continuous miners. Operating on a 10-entry heading, each section has four shuttle cars hauling coal from the continuous miner to the feederbreaker. River View uses shuttle cars operating on trailing cables in all of the super sections except one. The shuttle cars were built by Auxier Welding of Belva, W.Va., and equipped with Saminco VFD drives. Unit No. 4, in the No. 11 seam, is currently testing battery-powered ram cars. “We have four Joy ram cars and two Bucyrus ram cars. We tried four by themselves and then we’ve also tried six, three on each side. We’re still in the trial period so I hate to say what the outcome will be, and we’re anxious to see what the outcome will be,” said Lovell.

Currently River View has no underground storage or surge capacity, although some could be installed at a later time. On the surface, River View has roughly 400 to 500,000 tons of clean coal storage capacity and another 400 to 500,000 tons raw coal capacity as well.

Staffing Up
With nearly 600 employees, River View is the largest employer in the area. During the development stage, more than 200 experienced miners were recruited from sister mines within Alliance. The River View reserves, mainly in Union County, are centrally situated amidst several of Alliance’s other operations. Prior to River View’s opening, more than 125 employees were commuting to those mines from Union County and offering them employment at River View would improve the quality of life after hours.

“Our first 240 miners were pulled from that pool. By being able to just pluck units from Dotiki, Warrior, Pattiki and Gibson and set them down here, gave us the ability to almost immediately start up what’s become a very safe and productive operation. They already understood the Alliance safe operating culture. The big change for them was simply shortening their commutes. Having them as a core group to build around and help train the rest of the staff, that’s where the magic came from,” said Lovell.

While River View was still on the drawing board, Alliance realized it was going to be a lot easier for the company’s established mines to hire 40 to 50 new employees each rather than one new mine to hire 180 miners from scratch.  “We also knew it would be very difficult to start with brand new crews and follow the timeline that had been established,” said Lovell.

In addition to the experienced miners pulled from Alliance’s other mines, during the ramp up phase, River View hired more than 180 “orange hats” or inexperienced miners. Many were first trained at several of Alliance’s other mines while River View was under construction. Today, River View trains new hires while producing at high levels.

At the corporate level, safety is one of Alliance’s three core principles along with job security and quality of life. River View’s workforce was composed of miners who had come from virtually every coal operation in the area, but it also hired dozens of inexperienced people. Because of the mixed experiences and River View’s mandate to minimize accidents, everyone focuses on safety.

Before each shift, Alliance crews have a safety talk in each seam. “Most of the time it’s given by an hourly employee. We also put a lot of effort into training our employees and having standards for each occupation operating each piece of machinery. The 40-hour training that most of our new miners have received was done in house. We need to ensure that all of our new operators get trained the right way, the Alliance way, from day one. We want to instill in them the safety aspects from the very first day they set foot on property as employees. It’s all about people, communication and training,” said Lovell.

Production Strategies
Travel time from the bath house to the face is just 10 to 20 minutes. At the base of the shaft, crews move through a man door and then get on their respective diesel mantrips. Alliance’s production work a “hot seat” schedule changing out at the face.

Although the seam height varies, the mine maintains a roof height of roughly 60 inches. “We cut all of the limestone and other gob above the seam whether it’s 4 inches or 2 feet. We take it all down. Generally the gob only averages between 4- to 6-inches,” said Brown.

River View’s super sections mine on a 10-entry heading, with five entries for each continuous miner on each side. Production crews advance about 65 to 80 ft in each entry and then turn crosscuts using a traditional room-and-pillar method. “As we advance, we turn crosscuts every 65 ft. Our entry centers are 53-ft center to center. All of the entries are 19-ft wide and we turn the crosscuts at 90° in both seams,” said Brown.

“Determining the best pillar size for roof support and ground control is largely based on what our engineering studies tell us. As far as the number of entries in an area, that’s purely a production factor. We develop 10 entries per section, each continuous miner is responsible for five entries, with the belt situated in one of the middle entries,” said Brown.

With one miner cutting in entries one through five, and a second cutting in entries six through 10, the belt is in either entry five or six.  “If we used an odd number of entries where the feeder really was in the center entry, one miner would have an extra entry to cut which would cause one side of the unit to advance faster than the other,” said Lovell. 

Basically the right miner mines entries Nos. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and then starts back in No. 5. When it is time for developing crosscuts, they will add them to the cycle.  The left miner will mine Nos. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then back to 5.  “We usually try to move from heading to heading on a weekend.  We tram the miners with diesel generators and pull the other equipment with diesel tractors,” said Lovell.

River View runs split air or what’s commonly referred to as a fishtail on the super sections. “We bring the intake air up the middle entries and then we have a return aircourse in the Nos. 1, 2, 9 and 10 entries. So we have one standard miner with the operator on the right side and one offside miner with the operator on the left.  There are two standard cars on the standard miner and two offside cars on the offside miners. It is almost like having two individual sections in one.  We try to always keep our miners in a cutting cycle at least two to three places apart. Once an area is mined, its bolted, scooped and rock dusted. And the cycle continues,” said Brown. River View uses a non-center walk through Fletcher roofbolting machine.

Mining two seams stacked upon each other simultaneously requires precise surveying and constant monitoring. With 120 ft of interburden between the two seams, “we have more than enough distance between the two seams that as long as we stack the pillars everything else will maintain. The rock is so competent enough that we haven’t seen any influence between the two seams,” said Lovell.

Each unit gets a belt and power move every other night. “Third shift moves everything up two cross cuts. The tailpiece, feederbreaker, power center, all of the cables and everything else required by the unit gets moved up,” said Brown.

“Our secret to success is simple: we try to make good mine plans and we try to operate a system. Coal mining is a business. We train our crews to work as a team. Our system is designed to be repetitive. The more you do it, the better and more efficient you become. We try to run cut cycles so each miner cuts almost the same on each unit. That ensures the miner operator knows where he needs to go and the shuttle car operators know where they’re going. As they follow behind, the bolters know where the continuous miner is cutting. Similarly, the scoop operator knows where he needs to be and so forth,” said Brown.

In May, each of River View’s units cut an average of between 550 and 600 ft per shift. “In June, however, our surveys showed we had five units averaging more than 600 feet per shift,” said Lovell.  Beyond its well-trained crew, much of River View’s success is due to the favorable mining conditions and equipment. “The roof in both seams is very competent. Also, when we began mining two years ago, of our 16 continuous miners, 15 of them were out of the box brand new and the 16th was rebuilt. You combine that with the fact that we began with a core group of very experienced miners and we were able to really run,” said Lovell.

No matter how far each unit ad-vances, or how great a production leap the mine has made, Lovell realizes there is always room for improvement. “Each time we put a mine in, each time we bring on a new production unit in, we try to make it better than what we did last time. While there were no tremendous geotechnical leaps made when we built River View, there were lots of small changes that we implemented based on lessons learned at our other operations,” said Lovell.

“The best practices that our sister mines learned or adopted over time, we implemented here from the outset. VFDs on all of our belts; the hoist and how we supply the mine; etc., we adopted those lessons from our other operations,” said Lovell.

Embracing the MINER Act
River View, like all mines, is working closely with MSHA to adopt new operating strategies in compliance with the MINER Act. “One of my favorite parts of the new laws are the lifelines we’ve strung throughout the mine.  They’re not expensive and they’ve very helpful in an emergency situation, especially for people who may not be familiar with our operation. It’s great to be able to tell a person ‘Grab that. It’ll take you all the way out,” said Lovell.

In compliance with the new laws, River View purchased MINEArc Coalsafe refuge chambers for each of its sections. “They are big chambers and we keep them within 1,000 ft of the working face. We locate each one so it is protected behind a solid pillar of coal,” said Brown. “In addition to having one chamber per unit, River View has a spare for each seam in case one loses pressure or gets damaged.”

Alliance subsidiary Matrix Design Group has installed proximity detection systems on four of River View’s miners.

Throughout the mine, River View’s crews are adapting to the new rules and the proximity detection systems. “They definitely teach the miners to be safer and more aware of their surroundings. But we don’t think miner operators should rely solely upon a proximity system to alert them to their position,” said Brown.

While the rules are being debated, River View uses a proximity detection system designed by Alliance subsidiary Matrix. The Matrix system, however, is the only proximity system that can be bought already installed on a brand new Joy continuous miner. It is also the only system Joy will install on a rebuilt miner as well.

After having already zoomed to the forefront of highly productive underground mines in the U.S., River View’s crews and management are not content to rest on their laurels. “We’re always looking for the next improvement. We’re also always looking to add more units. If the market can sustain it, with our conditions and our people, there may be some additional capacity we could bring on,” said Lovell.