Sept/Oct 2008

Feeding a fierce demand

Western Canadian Coal Corporation expands and innovates to ambitiously boost production at its Wolverine mine

By D. Zlotnikov

A coal pile at Wolverine waits to be loaded on a train

Wolverine n. (1) The largest land-dwelling species of the Mustelidae family. Like most mustelids, the wolverine is remarkably strong for its size. (2) A metallurgical coal mining project in northeastern BC, currently in the process of expansion. Quite likely, home to a number of wolverines of the first variety.

While a discussion of the first definition of a wolverine is best left to zoologists and nature hobbyists, the latter is more likely to capture the attention of mining professionals. Having produced approximately 1.7 million tonnes of export coal in 2007, Wolverine has the two million tonne mark as its goal in 2008 and is aiming for three million by the end of 2010.

Wolverine is owned and operated by Western Canadian Coal Corporation and is the largest and newest of the three mines the company operates. It accounted for just over half of Western’s volume in 2007. It is also the company’s only operation that produces hard coking coal; the Brule and the Dillon properties produce what is known as PCI, or pulverized coal for injection.

Although the high price for coal — currently at $305 per tonne — was ­the main driving force behind the expansion, there are indications that it was always in the company’s plans. The processing plant that handles all of Wolverine’s production is capable of processing as much as 770 tonnes of raw coal feed per hour.

More in, more out

To reach the three million tonne goal, Wolverine general manager, Bob Bays said Western is developing the EB open pit property, about 17 kilometres from the current mine. The EB pit offers a reserve of eight million tonnes and is expected to begin production in 2010. The plan is to operate EB in parallel with Wolverine until the former’s reserve is exhausted, around 2018. By that time, other properties will have come online and made up for the supply gap.

Part of the planned production increase has involved augmenting the company fleet. Wolverine operates a mix of Caterpillar and Komatsu machines, which allows for some supply chain flexibility. This has been especially helpful in light of the longer lead times for equipment all mining companies face today.

“We’re competing with the diamond mines, the oil sands and other coal companies, so we have to plan our acquisition strategy farther ahead,” said Bays. “Sometimes that means having to go with one supplier over another due to availability.”

The latest additions have been five 150-tonne trucks and a Komatsu PC4000 hydraulic front shovel acquired in November 2007, followed by another three trucks, a Cat® 992G loader and a Sandvik D90K blasthole drill in April and May of this year. With the new equipment in place, Wolverine is moving over 65,000 bank cubic metres (BCM) of rock every day and,  according to Bays, is looking to increase that number to just over 70,000 in the near future.

Going underground

Developing other properties in addition to EB is another possibility which, according to Bays, is being re-evaluated due to the new market realities. “There is a property adjacent to the existing mine that was originally evaluated for possible development as an underground mine,” Bays explained. “The ratio involved made it uneconomical to develop as a surface mine.” The ratio is the number of BCMs the operator must remove in order to extract one metric tonne of coal. “Suppose each BCM costs you $6 to remove,” explained Bays. “That means you’re adding $6 to your operating costs for each ratio point.”

But what might have been dismissed as too costly last year, when met coal prices were under $100 per tonne, is a possibility in the much more lucrative $300+ market. “We have to decide on whether we want to go with the potentially cheaper underground approach and possibly miss some of the reserve, or go with the open pit approach, pay more to get the coal out, but get more of it,” explained Bays. One way or another, Bays expects a decision to be made before the end of this year to allow for permitting time — a process which itself can take up to a year despite the deposit lying within the existing lease boundary.

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