PC5500 has “excellent breakout force”
Last year, Decker Coal Company shipped more than a million tons of product compared to 2016. It accomplished this without increasing staff or adding a significant amount of equipment. So, how did it happen?
“There’s no magic formula,” stated General Manager Leonard Wolff. “It comes down to careful, advanced planning and constantly working to execute and reconcile the objectives. Our production team meets weekly to discuss what’s going well and proactively address areas of need.”
Wolff joined Decker Coal on the final day of October in 2015, close to the same date that other staff members also came on board, including Coal Manager Sean McEachern and Operations Manager Curt Griffith. At that time, the mine’s production was approximately 3 million tons per year. Right away, they, along with additional key personnel such as Engineering Manager Matt Guptill and Maintenance Manager Russ Noble began strategizing how to increase tonnage at the Decker, Mont., mine.
“Everything was assessed – our practices to uncover the coal seams, haul distances and more,” recalled Griffith, who built a scale model of the mine’s new layout in Decker’s office/shop and uses it for training purposes. “Reorganizing the pit so that there is less machinery movement and increased efficiency became a priority. The results speak for themselves, but we’re not completely satisfied. It’s a work in progress.”
The group changed some conventions that dated back to Decker Coal Company’s origination in 1972. At that time, it opened a pit known as West Decker, which has since been closed and reclaimed. A second pit, East Decker, began production in 1978 and continues operating today. During the past five decades, the business has changed hands several times and is now owned by parent company, Lighthouse Resources, which purchased it several years ago.
McEachern estimated that implementing new practices boosted production by nearly 50 percent during the past two years. “We are looking at shipping approximately 4.8 million tons this year. That’s up from 4.1 million in 2017. Our goal is annual growth. The mine has three seams, but right now we are only mining two of them, so the capacity to expand is there.”
Ramping up with Komatsu, KEC
Exposing the seams involves first stripping topsoil, which is stockpiled for reuse during future reclamation. Next, comes drilling and blasting to loosen hard overburden so that crews can dig, load and haul it away. Trucks dump the material in an area of the pit that’s been mined out, so the overburden is used as fill and becomes part of the post-mine topography.
Decker Coal Company is doing much of the overburden removal with a new 600-ton Komatsu PC5500-6 mining excavator equipped with a 38-cubic-yard bucket in a shovel configuration and four, 240-ton-capacity Komatsu 830E-1AC electric trucks. Acquired in late 2017, the mine put them into full production in January. Komatsu Equipment Company (KEC) representatives, including General Manager, Mining Nate Kendall; Mining Project Manager Scott Anderson; Gillette Branch Manager Chris Bennett; and Executive Vice President, Equipment Sales Joel Cook, assisted Decker Coal in obtaining the equipment. The purchase also included an HD785 that was converted into a fuel/lube truck.
“Our planning indicated that additional equipment was necessary to meet our projected future production capacity and customer demand,” said Wolff. “Once we determined the size of machines needed, we contacted KEC and a couple of competitive dealers. Curt and Sean recommended Komatsu based on past experience. That was a factor, and we also considered service and support. KEC made a firm commitment that they really wanted to partner with us.”
Noble added, “KEC has been very diligent about ensuring that our needs are met. They put together a finance package with the help of Komatsu Financial, which really stood out and was pivotal in getting the deal done. They have provided both operator and maintenance training, on-site parts consignment and a full-time technician dedicated to the mine for at least the first year. We meet with KEC, Komatsu personnel and other associated parties monthly in what’s known as a Komatsu JoiFUL (Joint Follow-Up Log) meeting (see related story on page 9) to discuss any items that need attention. Their after-sale support has been phenomenal.”
The machines are also performing exceptionally well, according to Decker Coal personnel. “The PC5500 has excellent breakout force and is very ergonomically friendly to operate,” said McEachern. “It’s a perfect match for the 240-ton trucks. With the 38-cubic-yard bucket, you can four-pass a truck in most cases, depending on material. The drivers all love the trucks, especially the ride and how easy they are to operate.”
Burns hotter, cleaner
Griffith said it is likely that at some point the PC5500 and 830s will help harvest and transport coal. For now, that’s primarily accomplished with draglines. Coal goes to a preparation plant where it is crushed to approximately two inches in size before being conveyed into storage silos. The final product leaves the mine for its next destination via a unit train made up of 110 to 125 cars, each containing roughly 100 tons of coal.
“The mine is located at the fringe of the Powder River Basin, and the thermal coal is higher quality than you normally find in that area,” said Wolff. “It burns hotter and cleaner, with low sulfur and ash. That makes it very attractive.”
Decker has two domestic contracts and delivers product directly to those clients by train. It also rails a significant amount to a port in Vancouver, British Columbia. From there, it is shipped mainly to Asian markets.
Lighthouse Resources is in the process of developing its own facility along the Columbia River in Longview, Wash. When complete, the Millennium Bulk Terminal will receive shipments from Decker as well as the Black Butte Mine, another thermal coal site in Wyoming that Lighthouse owns.
“The strategy even before we got here was to move more material overseas,” Wolff reported. “Securing the Millennium Bulk Terminal fits into that. Our plan at Decker Coal Company is to continue to ramp up to targeted full production, which, in our estimation, is approximately 12 million tons annually. We’re also looking into securing and permitting land that will add to the life of the mine.”