Gillette coal mine tour

by

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Crossing into a new state always requires a stop at the first tourist information stand, because no state wants to whoop up the attractions of its neighbors. And so it was when we entered Wyoming this morning from South Dakota. Jacky noticed a coal mine tour at Gillette. Free of charge, which is the right number, although there is a donations bucket, and we gave our guide a nice tip at the end of the tour.

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We pulled into the Gillette tourist info stand about 8:55, and learned that there were spots available on the 9:00 tour. We must be living right. There were around 20 of us, I suppose, on a small bus.

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In her current life, our tour guide is a 7th grade teacher, but she worked the mines herself at one point, so she knows whereof she speaks. The mines pay well, but operate 24×7 on rotating 12-hour shifts, and the schedule made it difficult to maintain a reasonable family life.

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For the most part, we are required to stay on the minibus, but we started with a viewing area, where we also find a few artifacts. Here, one of the excavation buckets.

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Jacky with one of the tires. The tire is chained down so the souvenir hunters don’t tuck it into their back pockets and run off with it. As to the Jacky, she has already been run off with.

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The trucks on which these tires are mounted. Our guide talked about driving a 240-ton truck, but they go up to 400 tons per load.

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Some of these are conventional Diesel mechanical-drive trucks, but some are also Diesel-electric, as in locomotives.

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All of the vehicles, trucks, scrapers, shovels, dozers, have fully enclosed cabs with air conditioning, Sirius radio, and of course site radio. The tour bus was also equipped with site radio, so our guide could tell what was going on, and of course be warned of any safety issues that might arise.

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The coal seams are on the order of 250 feet underground, if I understood correctly, so the first order of business is to remove about 50 feet of topsoil and another couple hundred feet of subsoil to expose the coal. When the coal has been removed, the overburden is restored, and the land returns to desert grassland, just one or two hundred feet lower than before. The road we drove to the mine site traversed one of these restored areas, and it looked fine.

Above, we see a mining operation that is working its way to the left, and will continue to do so for many years to come. There is a road off the picture to the left, which will eventually have to be relocated, and even more eventually, restored.

To get an idea of the scale, click the picture above and notice the angled drilling rig projecting above the horizon to the right, and to its left, the enormous earth-moving machinery. We’ll zoom in on some of these machines below.

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Even during the mining operation, it’s not hopelessly ugly. Clearly industrial, but nothing worse than would naturally be expected.

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Ok, that’s the setting. How about the operation?

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This is a drilling rig, not the one in the photo above, necessary for blasting the rock and coal into chunks small enough to shovel into trucks.

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Here is one of the machines we saw in the site overview above.

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A different site, a shovel loading a truck. As we would expect, there is more overburden haulage than actual coal extraction. The shovel fills the truck in two bucket loads.

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Some of the trucks back right up to the edge of the berm to dump their loads. I’d say that requires good judgment and a certain amount of bravery. Other trucks dump their loads near the berm and the dozer pushes it down. At least the dozer driver is facing forward!

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Above and below, two more zoom views from the site photo above.

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Here, we have a truck that’s actually carrying coal, rather than overburden. It passed under the road and headed for the silos where it can be elevated and loaded either onto rail cars or highway trucks for delivery. Coal is mined on demand, so it doesn’t sit around in piles or silos, waiting to be shipped.

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As we arrived at the truck unloading station, truck 416 was just leaving, while 361 was just arriving.

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After our guide told us that she had driven 240-ton trucks herself, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a woman driving this one, but I have to admit that my sexist prejudices won out. Cool!

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Around on the other side, we see where coal is loaded onto rail cars. As with all industrial tours, what we see depends on what’s going on. We’re in luck today: a train was just in the process of being loaded. The bus stopped in an optimal viewing position, and although we cannot get off the bus, the driver opened the door, and the bus windows can also be opened for better photography.

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The loks come through first, of course, at a steady continuous speed of 0.5 to 0.6 miles per hour.

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The rounded piece is the bottom of the shaft down which coal is loaded. Below, we see the coal just starting to fall.

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We’re told that one truckload is enough to fill two rail cars.

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As the car fills, the top of the load is nicely rounded off, which explains the shape of the component.

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Some customers want the coal sprayed with water (or something else, maybe?), some don’t. There’s not all that much dust from a coal train, because the fine material sinks to the bottom, leaving only the coarser chunks at the top. Settling also reduces the height of the load.

This mine ships around 80 trains per day, each train on the order of a mile long. We saw many of them — not necessarily from this mine — on our trip through Nebraska, full trains going east, empties returning west.

Just over two hours, one of the best industrial tours we have ever experienced. If the word had not been overused to the point of losing all of its meaning, we would have to say that this was truly awesome.

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