Reliable Komatsu equipment keeps cost as low as possible
The Wyodak Coal Mine is a historic property located in Wyoming’s northern Powder River Basin near Gillette. Originally known as the Peerless Pit, the property has been mined since 1922 when it was opened up to supply coal to power the famed Homestake Gold Mine near Deadwood, S.D. It is believed to be the oldest continuously operating surface coal mine in the United States.
The mine is now known as Wyodak Resources Development Corp. Wyodak is a subsidiary of Black Hills Corporation, a highly diversified energy company headquartered in Rapid City, S.D. In addition to the coal mine, Black Hills Corporation owns electric generation plants (also located at the Wyodak Mine), four natural-gas utilities, three electric utilities, an oil and gas exploration and production company, and an energy marketing firm.
The vast majority of the coal from the Wyodak Mine is used to supply the five electric power plants (a sixth is under construction) that are co-located on mine property. In the 87 years since mining began there, the size of the pit has expanded greatly. Today, coal is transported to the power plants via a nearly two-mile long conveyor system that crosses Interstate 90.
“It’s a fairly unique operation in that we’re the only mine in the Powder River Basin that uses an in-pit crushing/conveyor system to transport the coal,” said Steve Brown, Wyodak’s Operations Project Coordinator. “It works well for us because we are primarily delivering our product right here on site. We add extensions to our overland conveyor as necessary.”
“In addition to the economic benefits of using the product on site, the use of conveyors, rather than a fleet of haul trucks, is a plus for the environment,” said Production Planner Craig Weber. “It makes us a much greener operation than many other coal mines.”
Increased work load
Wyodak employs about 115 people in mining operations. That number has nearly doubled over the past couple of years as Wyodak has increased production and, at the same time, has begun mining in an area with a much higher overburden ratio.
“For more than 20 years, we mined roughly 3 million to 3.5 million tons of coal, moving 3 million to 6 million yards of dirt annually to expose the coal,” said Brown. “In the past couple of years, our production has increased to 6 million tons a year, and we now need to move about 14 million yards of dirt in order to mine that much coal. The higher overburden ratio was not unexpected — the longer a mine is in operation, it gets into the deeper, more expensive resources.
“To handle the greater work load, we have substantially increased the number of employees and extended our working hours,” he added. “We’ve gone from a standard eight-hoursper- day, 40-hour work week to running 12 hours a day, seven days a week.”
People are key
While Wyodak has added many new people to its payroll in the last year or two, one of its strengths is its ability to retain long-term employees.
“The longer people are with us, the more they understand our methods and the more they take pride in the company,” said Brown. “Our employees help us work productively and safely, and we do have a very good retention rate. We pay competitively and we’re close to town. We have a solid reputation as a quality employer with a good track record. Obviously, we’ve been around for a while. We’ve had many people start their careers here and not leave until they retire, 40 or even 50 years later.”
In addition to Brown and Weber, key personnel at Wyodak include Mine Superintendent Jack Clary and Maintenance Superintendent Nick Herman.
Productive, reliable machines
Wyodak has a substantial number of Komatsu machines at work at the mine, both in overburden removal and in coal production. The mine uses Komatsu WA900 wheel loaders to load coal into the crushers and onto the conveyor systems, as well as to load coal-hauling trucks.
“We’ve been very pleased with the WA900s,” reported Brown. “Years ago, we had a competitive brand, but since then, we’ve only bought Komatsu loaders.”
“I was a loader operator for many years and what I like about Komatsu is the hydraulic power and the quick response of the motor,” added Weber. “We get rpms quicker and the hydraulics work better. They’re very fast and also very comfortable machines, which improves our operators’ productivity when they’re in them all day like we are in a mining application.”
Wyodak has a Komatsu D375 dozer it uses to push overburden in muddy conditions, to pull other machines out when they get stuck, and to build ramps. It also has a number of Komatsu/Haulpak trucks. The trucks range from 150-ton units, some of which Wyodak has converted to belly-dump haulers, up to a 240-ton Komatsu 830E.
“The Komatsu 830E is our largest truck,” noted Brown. “We’re trying to phase out some of our smaller units and increase the size of our trucks. We found that when we stepped up from the 150-ton trucks to the 190-tonners, it saved us about a nickel per yard. Then, when we went to the 240-ton 830E, that was another nickel per yard. It may not sound like a lot, but when we’re moving 14 million yards per year, it adds up.
“With all of our equipment purchases, we’re looking for value, which is a combination of purchase price, availability, reliability, longevity and dealer support,” he added. “In a mine, it’s all about keeping the cost per ton as low as possible. We’ve found our Komatsu equipment helps us do that. For example, some of the used trucks we bought back in the early ’90s are still working for us every day. And the service we get from Komatsu Equipment Company is very good. We count on them not only when we have a machine down, but also to come in when we’re short-handed and help us out with general maintenance issues.”
Although it’s been continuously operating since shortly after World War I, Wyodak is in no danger of running out of coal anytime soon. There are thousands of acres and hundreds of millions of tons of reserves remaining at the property.
“Having that level of reserves is a good thing because Black Hills Corporation certainly seems inclined to continue growing,” said Brown. “I’ve been here 28 years. When I started, we were supplying two power plants. Now we have five, and a sixth, which is currently under construction, is slated to go online in June of 2010.
“Although we’ve heard some coal mines have slowed down a bit this year, we haven’t seen that,” Brown noted. “Our parent company does a good job of keeping supply in line with demand. In recent years, about as soon as they finish one plant, they start looking to build another, so we fully anticipate more plants down the line. And of course, every time they add a power plant, it increases the demand for coal, so we’re optimistic about the future. It’s all part of meeting the region’s and the nation’s demands for energy.”