By Steve Fiscor, Editor-in-Chief

The total number of longwall mines, according to Coal Age’s annual U.S. Longwall Census, now stands at 41 and, with five mines operating two faces, the total number of faces is 46. Two of the longwall mines are operating in soft rock in Wyoming. Technically, the number of U.S. longwall mines operating in coal dropped below 40 for the first time since Coal Age began collecting the data in the mid-1980s. One could debate these 39 longwall mines, which are some of the safest, most productive underground mines, probably produce more as a whole than the collective did back then.

CONSOL Energy remains the leading U.S. longwall producer with 11 faces. Arch Coal and Murray Energy operate five longwall mines. Walter Energy and Alpha Natural Resources both operate two longwall mines and three longwall faces, but that could soon change to three longwall mines and four faces for both companies. West Virginia leads the nation with 12 longwalls, followed by Pennsylvania (7), Alabama (6) and Utah (5).

Three longwall mines were removed from the census this year and no new longwalls were commissioned in the 2010-2011 timeframe. In West Virginia, Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine suffered a tragic explosion during April and was removed. CONSOL Energy closed Mine No. 84 in Pennsylvania. Rhino Resources purchased C.W. Mining in Utah last year and the Bear Canyon mine no longer operates a longwall.

If one were to generalize, the average U.S. longwall mine has a cutting height of 88 inches, a panel width (or face length) of 1,055 ft, and a panel length 10,724 ft. Last year, those numbers were 85 inches, 1,075 ft and 10,995 ft, respectively. A total of 16 longwalls (41%) operate in the Pittsburgh No. 8 seam. The maximum overburden on average reaches 1,225 ft. Except for a couple of mines in Utah, most are developed on a 3-entry system. Using a 1,699-hp double-drum, ranging-arm shearer, they take a 39-inch cut. The average yield setting on the shields is 975 tons. Most (29 coal faces) are high voltage (4,160 volts).

As far as extremes, the deepest longwall mines are operating at 2,600 ft in Utah. CONSOL Energy’s Bailey Enlow Complex operates the longest faces; three of the four faces are 1,500-ft long. The company also operates the shortest face, 700 ft at the Buchanan mine in Virginia. At 23,000 ft, the Bull Mountain mine in Montana has the longest panel followed by Mach Mining, which has a panel length of 19,000 ft.

The Year in Review
The UBB tragedy had a huge impact on underground coal production. Many longwall mines were focusing more attention on operating and ventilation plans. As coal companies pursue more challenging seams, U.S. longwalls are also encountering more problems with geology, especially in the East.

During January, Alpha Natural Resources announced it intends to buy Massey Energy. If and when that deal closes, Alpha would add another longwall mine to the two in Pennsylvania (the Cumberland and Emerald mines) it gained from the Foundation merger the year before. The Emerald mine is currently operating one of its two longwalls. After completing a move last year, Massey restarted a longwall at the Revolution mine in West Virginia, which had been idle due to  roof conditions and regulatory issues regarding its ventilation plan.

Arch Coal recently idled the longwall at its Mountain Laurel mine in West Virginia due to “geologic challenges.” The longwall is expected to be idle for most of the first quarter of 2011 while additional development work is completed on the next panel. The longwall is scheduled to restart in mid- to late-April. During the outage, Mountain Laurel will supply coal to customers from its five continuous miner operations as well as from existing inventories. The decision will impact first quarter 2011 production, but the company expects to make up some portion of the delayed production as the year progresses.

During September, Arch Coal’s Canyon Fuel Co. subsidiary announced its Dugout Canyon mine in Carbon County, Utah, had restarted its longwall mining system and is in the process of resuming production. After production was interrupted on June 22, the company worked closely with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to assess the situation and restart the mine. The Dugout Canyon mine experienced an ignition on the longwall.

In its fourth quarter earnings report, Patriot Coal said production at the Federal mine exceeded 1.1 million tons during the quarter, more than 250,000 tons above the third quarter. The company also said it only expects to move the Panther longwall once in 2011, in the second quarter, so it is anticipating steadier production. Patriot’s production suffered during the third quarter due to major moves of both longwalls, heightened regulatory oversight, new regulatory interpretations and geological conditions. The Federal longwall was idled for almost two weeks as a result of a ventilation change required by regulatory authorities in an area of the mine that did not require sampling under prior interpretations of the law. The Panther complex experienced lower production as a result of the scheduled extended longwall move, exacerbated by equipment start-up issues. On a combined basis, production from both of Patriot’s longwalls was 400,000 tons lower than normal during the third quarter, or about 25%.

Alliance Resource Partners’ River View mine in West Virginia continues to post solid production figures. For the first nine months of 2010, the company reported increased production (10.7%) and sales volumes (19.6%) for River View, compared to the same period in 2009. Alliance is planning to open another Northern Appalachian longwall operation at Tunnel Ridge during early 2012.

Both of Cliffs Resources’ longwall mines, the Pinnacle mine in West Virginia and the Oak Grove mine in Alabama, experienced difficulties during 2010. The company reduced its 2010 sales volume expectation from both mines to 2.8 million tons, from a previous expectation of 3.4 million tons. The decrease, according to the company, was primarily driven by an adverse geological conditions at the Pinnacle mine—the only longwall plow system operating in the U.S. Pinnacle is installing a new automated plow system, which, combined with other capital projects, is anticipated to improve future production rates.

Walter Energy produces about 7. 5 million tons per year of premium coking coal from a group of longwall mines in the region surrounding Tuscaloosa, Ala. Since moving to a new longwall panel at Mine No. 4, the company continues to experience difficult mining conditions, which has significantly slowed longwall production. The company believes, based on section development work, that Mine No. 4’s production capacity will improve. The Mine No. 7 expansion experienced some delays last year. During the third quarter, the company reported development work on the second longwall panel for the Mine No. 7 East expansion improved, which allowed them to bring the new longwall panel online a little earlier than expected. Last year, Walter Energy announced expansion activities unrelated to the Blue Creek mines. The company signed a non-binding Letter of Intent to lease 52 million tons of Blue Creek coal in Tuscaloosa County and to acquire the existing North River mine (steam coal) from Chevron Mining. That sale is expected to close soon.

In Illinois, Foresight Energy’s Sugar Camp mine should have two longwall operating by the fourth quarter of 2011. It has the potential to operate four longwalls.

CONSOL operates a total of eight longwall mines. Three of the mines cut coal from two longwall faces: Bailey and Enlow Fork in Pennsylvania, and McElroy in West Virginia. The company continues permitting and development of its planned BMX (Bailey Mine Expansion) longwall mine in Western Pennsylvania. Full longwall production is expected to be 5 million tons per year beginning in late-2013 or early 2014. Development costs, according to the company, will be lower than a greenfield mine because BMX will use existing infrastructure and the prep facilities at the Bailey-Enlow Fork complex.

A new vendor name could be appearing on the longwall census soon. Late last year, Caterpillar announced it intended to buy Bucyrus. Cat would be extremely familiar with its lines of surface mining equipment, such as electric shovels and the trucks and excavators Bucyrus acquired from Terex Mining. Longwall mining, however, is a world away from open-pit mining. Cat has not announced its intentions and the deal is not expected to close until mid-2011.