By Steve Fiscor, Editor-in-Chief

Last year proved to be a robust year for underground coal mines. Coal prices remained relatively strong throughout the year, especially for metallurgical grade coal. For those companies that employ longwall mining—the most productive form of underground coal mining—profit margins were high too. Despite the promising market conditions, five faces and three mines were removed from the Coal Age 2009 U.S. Longwall Census. One face was added to bring the total to 44 mines operating 48 faces.

For the first time since Coal Age began tracking the longwall mines, the number of faces dropped below 50. A total of five mines operate two longwall faces. CONSOL Energy remains the leader with 12 faces. Arch Coal operates five longwall mines. Robert E. Murray owns five longwall mines. West Virginia has 13 longwalls, followed by Pennsylvania (8), Utah (6), and Alabama (6).

In Alabama, a face was added to Jim Walter Resources’ Blue Creek No. 7 mine and a face was removed from Drummond’s Shoal Creek mine. In Illinois, the Galatia North mine was removed along with Maple Creek’s High Quality mine in Pennsylvania, UtahAmerican Energy’s Tower mine in Utah, and Patriot Coal’s Harris No. 1 mine in West Virginia.

Only a limited amount of changes took place this year and most of them occurred in the eastern U.S. coalfields. Several announcements have been made related to an expected decline in met coal prices after seeing the market surge to as much as $300/ton in 2008. The Pinnacle mine in Pineville, W.Va., is a prime example. Recently, Cliffs Natural Resources announced that Pinnacle Mining Co. will temporarily halt production at its complex for the month of February (See News, p. 22). Pinnacle produces metallurgical coal and demand has been reduced as the steel industry has cut back production.

High-margin met production was one of several attributes that prompted Patriot Coal to purchase Magnum Coal during July 2008. As part of the deal, it acquired the Panther mine (formerly owned by Speed Mining).

Patriot now operates two longwall mines, Federal No. 2 and Panther. The company’s Harris No. 1 and Federal No. 2 mines both cut coal from relative low seam heights and they encountered some difficult geology last year. The longwall equipment was pulled from the Harris mine. The Federal No. 2 mine resumed operations in April 2008 after longwall production was curtailed in early March following two roof falls. Now, at both the Federal and Panther mines, the company has modified the configuration of upcoming longwall panels to mitigate the impact of hard cutting and soft bottom conditions. Operations at Federal have improved. At the Panther mine, the company upgraded the longwall shearer in November.

Located near Tuscaloosa, Ala., Jim Walter Resources is nearing completion on its Blue Creek No. 7 East expansion. According to the company, both Blue Creek mines were expected to deliver record output again in 2008. The company is expecting first longwall production from the expansion project in the second quarter of 2009, so it was added to this year’s census.

Last year, the U.S. Longwall Census incorrectly listed Alliance Resources’ Mettiki mine in Maryland. Longwall mining ceased at this mine in October 2006 and the equipment was transitioned from the Mettiki (Maryland) operation to the Mettiki Coal (West Virginia) operation, now known as the Mountain View mine located in Tucker County, W.Va. The longwall at Mountain View went into operation in November 2006.

Arch Coal’s West Elk mine completed the transition to the E seam and started a new longwall in December 2008. The project included four years of permitting, at least 50 months of development work, and more than $200 million in capital to provide new and extended mine infrastructure, including a new longwall, high-capacity belt conveying systems, an underground coal bunker, and an enhanced ventilation system. The longwall encountered difficult geologic conditions as it began operations and the mine experienced a roof fall that temporarily halted production for 10 days in January, but conditions are expected to improve as the longwall progresses in its current panel.

CONSOL Energy Modifies Mine Plans
With coal production falling slightly below targeted levels during 2008, America’s top longwall producer announced that it would embark on a new production strategy. The company said a number of factors influenced production, but no single factor dominated. These included roof falls on the main line belt haulage; regulatory issues; technological issues, particularly the challenge of completing development of new longwall coal panels as rapidly as required; and geologic issues such as roof conditions and intrusion of rock into coal seams.

In its third quarter earnings report (October 2008), CONSOL Energy said it made a number of important changes that, over the course of the next six months, were expected to positively impact productivity and production. The company said it was focusing a lot of attention on the development issue because it is the key to getting the maximum efficiency from longwall mines. Crews were added and work schedules were changed to increase longwall panel development. OEMs were working with them to develop better haulage systems for continuous miners to increase rates of advance in development sections of the mine. A number of mines were modifying plans to increase the ratio of coal produced by the longwall equipment compared to that produced by the continuous miner sections.    

The company has plans for seven longwall face extensions that are scheduled to be completed between January 2009 and January 2011. During 2009, CONSOL expects to complete a longwall face extension at Bailey, Loveridge, and Robinson Run. In 2010, three additional longwall face extensions are scheduled to be complete, with the seventh and final longwall face extension expected to be finished in January 2011. A longwall face extension typically increases mine production by 300,000 to 500,000 tons per year, requires fewer longwall moves, decreases the amount of mine development, and reduces development lead time for longwall panels.

At CONSOL’s Shoemaker mine, the upgrade of the underground haulage system is on schedule and is expected to be completed during the first quarter of 2010. Annual production is expected to be 6 million tons per year. Currently, Shoemaker is running on a limited basis with the older haulage system as construction of the newer, more efficient belt haulage system is completed.

A new slope and overland belt at CONSOL Energy’s Bailey mine is expected to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2009. This project should reduce underground mining delays and increase availability, and by reducing the time and distance coal is transported underground.

CONSOL Energy’s Buchanan mine, located near Mavisdale, Va., resumed production during September. The company said that all remaining seals in a previous area of concern were now rated at or above 120 psi in compliance with federal regulations. The area in the Buchanan mine that was being sealed is the area of the mine where a roof fall resulted in the mine being idled for nearly nine months last year. The mine replaced 89 seals.

By the Numbers
Even though the average cutting height remains essentially the same, the size of the average U.S. longwall and the equipment continues to grow. The average cutting height dropped to 86 inches from 87 inches last year. It was 86 in 2006. The average face length grew to 1,043 ft from 984 ft last year. Panel lengths averaged 10,749, compared to 10,206 ft in 2007. The average depth of cut remained the same at 38 inches. The average horsepower installed on the shearer increased to 1,589 hp from 1,537 hp last year. The average roof support yield strength also increased dramatically to 971 tons from 908 tons in 2007.

Arch Coal’s SUFCO mine in Utah has the longest face: 1,800 ft. Mach Mining’s Lower Wilgat mine has the longest panel: 18,000 ft. The deepest longwall mines can be found in Utah and Alabama. At 2,600 ft, Arch Coal’s Dugout Canyon and Energy West Mining’s Deer Creek mines, are the two deepest longwall mines. The largest shields (1,300 ton yield rating) can be found at Peabody Energy’s Twentymile mine and Jim Walter Resources No. 4 mine. The SUFCO mine also has the most powerful shearing machine with a 2,805-hp rating. One of the faces at CONSOL Energy’s Bailey mine is operating an armored face conveyor powered by three 1,900-hp motors. At 50 mm, BHP Billiton’s San Juan South mine has the biggest AFC chain. A majority of faces (24) use 42-mm chain on the AFC. A total of 32 faces reported in as high voltage at 4,160 kVa.