Sept/Oct 2006

Elk Valley Coal

Innovation paving the way

By C. Chen, H. Ednie and H. Weldon

2800-XPA bucket silhouetted against the sky with North Line Creek highwall in the background | Line Creek Operations


At Elk Valley Coal, innovation is a key tool for improved business performance. Across all six operations, the company is sharing best practices and maintains a commitment to performance optimization.

With six metallurgical coal operations and headquarters in Calgary, Elk Valley Coal benefits from best practices sharing and excellent cooperation between sites. The company has long had a tradition of innovative thinking and a willingness to explore new technology, with a keen eye to discover tools to benefit the bottom line.Today, a variety of new technology and processes are under testing, or being rolled out, across the numerous operations.

While the engineering, maintenance, and operations staff work to bring innovation to practice, the exploration group remains equally busy, seeking out and delineating the coal reserves of the future.With up to a 10-year development time frame for a new mining area, work at all mines to increase reserves is paramount to future success.

As a way to highlight the company’s commitment to innovation, CIM visited three operations – Fording River,Greenhills, and Coal Mountain – to explore some of the programs ongoing across the sites.

Fording River

With 25 years’ reserves at Fording River, the flagship operation of Elk Valley Coal remains one of the world’s notable metallurgical coal mines. Though markets over the past year were not as buoyant as orig-inally expected, Brazil, Russia, India, and China all maintain a robust economic long-term outlook, calling for the need for infrastructure, that will translate into steel and metallurgical coal demand.

Over the past nine months, while the market softened a bit, Fording River took the opportunity to invest in the future. Meanwhile, a focus remains on discovering, delineating,and developing the next coal reserve to maintain Fording River’s future production.

The Fording River operation consists of three active mining areas: Henretta, Turnbull, and Eagle. In each area, multiple seams are mined. Six large electric shovels are used onsite. An expansion of mine and plant capacity, which started in 2004 and is planned to be completed this year, will bring annual production capacity from 9.3 million tonnes to 10.5 million tonnes – making Fording River the world’s largest truck and shovel metallurgical coal mine.

A scanning system using lidar is planned to be mounted on the shovels. It will scan the surface of the dig face, after every third, tenth, or fifteenth load, and determine accurate bucket fill factor.“A final link in this system will be to tie-in operating parameters from the shovels’on-board computer systems, and to gain a full understanding of the correlation between blasting energy applied, fragmentation, and, ultimately, shovel productivity,” Arpad Koltai, superintendent, engineering, Fording River, said. “After that,we’ll have the complete system wired – it will be unique, an industry first again.”

The increased ability to analyze load data has born results. “We haven’t had a survey adjustment in months,” said Dan L’Heureux, superintendent, mine operations, Fording River. “We’re moving exactly what we think we’re moving.”

Another focus for new ideas to improve performance is mine safety. Even small improvements can reap rewards. For example, 20-pound steel hammers were used for replacing teeth on buckets, but can splinter. They have been replaced with pure copper hammers that don’t splinter and, currently, the company is looking at hammerless teeth replacement.

Another safety improvement relates to operating in fog and poor weather conditions. Traditionally, flare pots were used to light the pit – 10-gallon barrels filled with diesel, a straw wick, and lighted. “The flare pots work well, but they have associated costs and flexibility concerns,” L’Heureux said. “We’re testing LED light technology, which takes virtually no power to run.We’re trying a series of flashing LED lights, to replace the flare pots.”

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