A Brief History of Longwall Mining in the Rockies

Trent Ernst, Editor

HD Mining has argued that they need to bring in workers from China because they can’t find anyone in Canada with longwall mining experience.

The Tumbler Ridge News has managed to track down a Canadian with longwall experience. Even better, he is an engineer, who understands the longwall mining industry, having worked in management for a longwall mine in Scotland and advising mines in longwall techniques in places as far flung as South Africa.

However, at 85 years old, Neil Duncan is not looking for a job. He’s just looking to get the message out to both sides of the HD Mining debate: it’s not as easy as it seems.

Duncan was working for a company that did engineering work for McIntyre Mines, owners of the Smokey River Mine, now Grande Cache Coal. While he was not directly involved with the longwall process, his colleagues were, and he had long discussions with them.

“I’ve written to HD Mining and expressed that our experience in Smoky River was very important,” says Duncan. “McIntyre Mines put in at least 100 million into getting longwall mining to work there, and it proved to be a very difficult proposition to build a mine like this in the mountains.”

He’s worried about HD’s decision to run the mine as a longwall mine, and he is not convinced that the 100,000 tonne bulk sample that HD is undertaking will be enough of a proof of concept, though he admits that he is only speaking from his experience with Smokey River. “I’m working in the dark,” he says. “I haven’t seen any of the drawings or plans or anything other than a story in the Calgary Herald and a story in the Globe and Mail.”

However, having worked with the engineers who worked on the longwall section at the Smoky River Mine, Duncan knows it’s not going to be easy. “I believe that there is much that can be learned from the 40 year old history of Smoky River Mines,” says Duncan.

Prior to 1969, then-owner McIntyre Mines began an intensive drilling project. “This indicated to the experts that the number nine seam was ideal for longwalling, and would be highly profitable under the contracts with the Japanese steel-makers.”

They were wrong, says Duncan. He says that a combination of geological issues and management issues caused the longwall project to fail spectacularly. “McIntyre’s financial losses were, on attempting longwall in the Rocky Mountain coals, enormous!” As a result, nobody has attempted longwall mining in the Rocky Mountains since.

“The mine managers, Gordon Cook, Jerry Hartley and John Shaw had been top line managers of longwall collieries in England,” says Duncan. From 1969, for more than a year, McIntyre Mines of Toronto provided them, and Peter Armstrong Mechanical Engineer, and other staff with offices in a high-rise, and homes in Edmonton. Their task was to specify and order two longwall faces and conveyors for number two mine and number five mine as top priority,” says Duncan.

“The longwall face in number two mine was supported by Dowty powered supports cut by an Anderson Boyes (AB) ranging drum shearer and a British Jeffrey Diamond (BJD) Armored Face Conveyor (AFC). The coal face miners were mainly recruited from England and, to a lesser extent, from Nova Scotia; the “oncast” workers were from McIntyre’s hard rock mines or recruited locally.”

Duncan says that the Grande Cache of the late 1960s and early 1970s was similar to Tumbler Ridge in the 1980s: nice houses, a new swimming pool, ice rink, shopping mall.

“McIntyre employed an American mining consulting company, Boyds and Associates, as its sole consultant, thus ruling out my company, Canford Engineering Co Ltd., although Canford had designed the ventilation systems for the two mines.”

The contracts with the Japanese steel companies were large, and McIntyre put pressure on Boyds to increase output to meet the demands.

This resulted in a costly mistake. Priority was given to other areas of the mine, leaving the longwalls being undermanned. This in turn meant the equipment was not being used continually.

In surface mining, this might not be a big issue, but underground, the pressures are enormous. The power supports were not designed to be left in one place, and, according to Duncan, the forward abutment pressure on the supports caused them to start to sink into the soft floor. “The “The face could not stand being mined slowly. It had to be mined 24 hours a day seven days a week.”

It was only a matter of months before the two longwall faces stopped production and the longwall equipment sold off. “From then on, room and pillar mining was employed in both mines,” he says. “No further longwalls were contemplated.” The experienced longwall managers moved on to the US and the equipment was sold, also to mines in the US.

That is, until HD Mining came forward with a proposal to build a longwall mine just outside of Tumbler Ridge. “It’s a very difficult proposition to build a mine like this here. I’m very worried about the whole thing,” says Duncan. He says that HD’s hope to discover the feasibility of operating a longwall mine during the bulk sample is perhaps a little optimistic. “The bulk sample is not a mining test. They send it overseas, and they put it in a coking oven that only uses the coal from the Murray River to see how it burns in a dedicated boiler somewhere. I’m not saying you’re not going to learn something about mining, but it’s about testing the coal.”

So what is the issue, anyway? “The tectonic forces that pushed the Rockies up have changed things,” says Duncan. He points to the open pit mines at Bullmoose and Quintette, both of which he is quite familiar with. There the coal seams are not level, but are twisted and bent by the same forces that raised the mountains. “It’s very tricky. We’re dealing with rocks that have been tectonically disturbed. The mine-ability of the coal changes under these conditions.”

Unfortunately, you can’t determine how things are going to look during the exploration phase. “You can determine the horizon of the coal by drilling, but it doesn’t tell you the mine-ability.”

Duncan doubts the unions’ claims that there are workers in Canada that would understand longwall mining. “For the face work, you need skilled workers,” says Duncan. “There are none left in Britain, there are none left in Nova Scotia. You’re not going find them here. There are skilled workers in South Africa and Australia, but you’re not going to get them to come here.” He says he’s written the unions, warning them that it is dangerous work, and that HD is correct that experienced miners are essential. “Training is not enough,” says Duncan. “I have contrived to be under the powered supports in the faceline’s travelway when the collapse happens,” says Duncan. “A blast of dust and air, often containing methane enters the faceline, and it can be terrifying to those without face the power supports will prevent the cave-in from damaging the strata above.”