Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Coal - the TV series

Well, thanks to the Engineer, I watched my first episode of “Coal” this afternoon. The show is on the Spike network with a significant part of the first episode setting up the story. The episode is called “The Master Mines”, and presumably relates to the skill of one of the continuous miner operators, who is able to produce 7 cuts – each 20 ft deep – during the course of his shift. The mine owners apparently need that production each shift (and there are two a day) if they are going to manage to keep the mine financially profitable. Well, needless to say, they don’t manage to get there, but they had to condense the action of about a month into one episode in order to generate enough suspense to keep the plot moving. (In contrast with the miners of Gold Rush– Alaska, which at the end of the season was doing that it seemed every couple of days).On the other hand these folks seriously know a lot more about what they are doing.

For those who have never been in a coal mine, or had any concept of what it is like, the series does give some impression of the mining operation, but it scurried through the introduction at such a pace that I am still not that sure of the layout of the mine underground. I am going to comment on some of the operations in the mine during the rest of the post, so that if you don’t want me to spoil the suspense, then you might want to go watch the show before reading on.

The Cobalt Coal mine is on Westchester Mountain in McDowell County, VA and two of the cast (?) took over the rights to mine the property, at the beginning of the season. The way that it was financed, with a $4 million investment, apparently requires that they must get enough cash flow from the coal (a high grade metallurgical grade lying in the Sewell seam that is sold for steel making) to cover the cost of operations even for the first month. There are 35 local miners who were hired to work the mine, and they have varying levels of expertise. The 7 cuts a day (is that one or two shifts?) translate into 40 truckloads of coal leaving the property for the wash plant, where the coal is cleaned of dirt (more of which anon).

The current working operation is an adit, i.e. a tunnel that runs straight into the mountain, mined from the coal, from the outside. It is only driven at seam height, and it is 600 ft long from the entrance (portal) to the working face. Those who are curious about such things as the layout at the face, and what the curtain is that they drive through, might get some help from the series of posts that I wrote on coal mining some time ago. The most relevant is probably the one about continuous miners, since that is the machine that they use.

The show really does not give the audience much idea as to how hard operating the continuous miner is. It used to be that the miner sat on the machine and steered it with joysticks from a cab on the side. But the machine is long, and the law says that a miner cannot go under unsupported roof. So taking the miner off the machine and controlling it remotely means that it can mine more before it has to pull back out of the tunnel it has dug, and move over to the next passage, so that the roof can be supported. The problem for the operator is that he can no longer see at all what is going on at the cutting drum. As the crew note, he has to listen and tell by sound, and the way that the machine is responding, whether the drum is cutting in coal, roof rock or in the floor. Every ton of rock that is mined is that much less coal produced, and that much more expense in cleaning and disposal. It is quite difficult to accurately steer and control the machine, and thus I suspect that the “apprentice” driver was much more skilled than the show let on. (Which raises a question about the night-shift operator, but that may be a series plot so I will not go there).

However the coal varies in height a little, and so the mine has to take some of the rock out of the floor (which is generally a softer shale) in order to give enough working height for the roofbolter – a machine that inserts what I believe are resin anchored roofbolts into the rock over the opening to hold it in place. This can mean that the machine has to cut as much as a foot deep into the underlying rock. The problem that occurs when it does (and generally it is done at the same time as the coal is being mined from the solid) is that the two get mixed together. Since the rock doesn’t burn it has to be separated from the coal, and that is the job at the coal preparation or wash plant. Here the mix is typically put into a fluid bath (simplistically) so that the coal floats, while the rock sinks to the bottom of the tank. The two are thus separated, and the cleaned coal can then be sold on the market. Incidentally when the bits are cutting rock they wear out much faster, needing costly replacement.

One of the “dramatic” bits of film was when part of the roof collapsed. It happens more often than you might think, and the roof has to be tested, even before it is bolted, and loose top broken down. Generally, however, miners use something a little more specialized than a geologic hammer – there are special tools and the modern ones are of fiber glass and quite long, so that the crew are well back from any rock that might fall on them. (Wasn’t always that way however).

I was glad to see the inspectors featured in the first episode, a safe mining industry is not only healthier it is also more productive, and we need a well qualified and powerful inspectorate to achieve that goal.

Well I may add more comments as the series progresses, it does give some picture of mining , though I have to admit reality was not usually as exciting as the series would make it, but, on the other hand, you don’t feel the muscle ache of working in that height when you’re watching it on tv – I still have knee problems from those days. (And yes I was underground when men died, and yes I was involved in roof falls). And in regard to back injuries, I led a research crew that worked on mining machine concepts (among other things) for four decades, all of us have bad backs.


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  2. Once again , WEST Virginia is referred to as VIRGINIA. If you watched the show at all you had to know that EVERY episode begins by saying that the mines is in McDowell County , WEST Virginia, geez, how hard is that to get right.