Wescoal nurtures its backbone

By | 2018-07-11T11:17:55+00:00 July 11th, 2018|Mine Excursion|

Wescoal’s Elandspruit Colliery is the mainstay in its growing list of assets, writes Leon Louw.

The acquisition of Keaton Energy’s Vanggatfontein mine and the Moabsvelden license late last year, placed Wescoal on a new growth path in which it doubled production and revenue. “The company’s immediate focus will be on optimising its current assets, while exploring external growth opportunities,” says Izak van der Walt, chief financial officer at Wescoal. Wescoal’s two largest producing mines are Elandspruit in Middelburg, and Vanggatfontein, close to Delmas, both in Mpumalanga. The company’s two other operations, Khanyisa and Intibane, are nearing the end of their mine life. Elandspruit is expected to produce coal for the next eight years, while Vanggatfontein is set to continue churning out coal for the next 12 years, with possible expansions, especially onto the adjacent Moabsvelden license area.

The acquisition has changed the traditional Wescoal market, as it allows the company to further strengthen its Eskom business and relationship. It also expands Wescoal’s potential product offering.

Keaton Energy found Vanggatfontein tricky to mine and encountered many geological challenges, for which the area is notorious. The mine still produces about 350 000 tonnes per month (tpm) run of mine (ROM), but the Wescoal team will have their work cut out for them at Vanggatfontein.

However, Thivha Tshithavhane, CEO at Wescoal Mining, says the team is happy with what they inherited at Vanggatfontein. “We had to make a few changes, though. The yield is lower than Wescoal standards and therefore our main goal at the mine is to introduce a programme to optimise the yield,” says Tshithavhane. “Operationally, there is not much of a difference between Vanggatfontein and Elandspruit. The main differences are in the scheduling and timing and at Vanggatfontein more coal faces are accessible, which increases operational flexibility.” he adds.

Wescoal mine

At Elandspruit, Wescoal mines all five coal seams, which allows the mine to run a continuous stream of products through its plant.

Smooth operations at Elandspruit

At the company’s prime operation, Elandspruit, which at 260 000tpm of ROM produces less coal per month, operations are running smoothly. Production at Elandspruit is just over three million tonnes per annum.

According to Tshithavhane, a contractor at Elandspruit — IPP Materials Handling — is currently mining four faces. “These faces are mined concurrently so that we can optimise the operation, and it allows us to get an economical line to the processing plant,” says Tshithavhane. Basically, each face targets a different seam and produces the product that is in demand or that a specific client has ordered. At Elandspruit, Wescoal mines all five coal seams. This method allows the mine to run a continuous stream of products through its plant, which is about 20km from the Elandspruit pit. Furthermore, Tshithavhane says that Wescoal is expanding onto the neighbouring land and finalising a toll and wash agreement. “This will give us an opportunity to increase our processing capacity without any additional capital requirements,” he says.

The highwall at Elandspruit pit

The highwall at Elandspruit pit is 45m high. The different seams are clearly visible in this image. Elandspruit mines Seam 1 to Seam 5.

Accessing the correct seams

The coal at Elandspruit is mined from an open pit and from underground. Seam 1 is reached by an underground decline. All the other seams (two to five) are accessed from the open pit. “In order to maximise value from the resource, we synchronise the underground and opencast mine to ensure that when the opencast is mined out, we are not left with just the underground operation,” adds Tshithavhane. The strip ratio in the open pit is on average about 2.7. The mine uses 30 articulated dump trucks (ADTs) for haulage and 10 excavators in the open pit.

Baat Leonard, mine manager at Elandspruit, explains that the mining team is currently unearthing coal from Seam 4. Seam 5 is the shallowest, but it does not outcrop everywhere at Elandspruit. On the high wall, the different seams can be clearly distinguished. Nine metres below Seam 4, Seam 3 (which Leonard says is high-quality coal) is exposed, and approximately 15 metres underneath that, Seam 2, which occurs in a band of close to six metres wide. Seam 4 and Seam 3 are also corroded in many places on the property and do not occur everywhere. Right at the bottom, not more than one metre of Seam 1 is visible, which is mainly mined underground. Tshithavhane explains that coal from the different seams is stockpiled separately but blended if required. The highwall is about 45m in height, the pit is between 40m and 60m deep, and the total mine area is 2.5km wide and 9km in length. There is thus still significant room to expand the open pit.

Wescoal is in the process of optimising all its current operations, including Elandspruit.

Wescoal is in the process of optimising all its current operations, including Elandspruit.

Processing in the basin

Elandspruit is located almost in the epicentre of the Witbank coal basin — the greatest coalfield yet to be discovered on the African continent. Although compact in comparison to the one or two remaining mammoth open pits on its doorstep, the four seams underlying the Elandspruit license bear enough high-quality coal to ensure a profitable operation. The mine is about 3km west of Middelburg and is surrounded by five or six different coal mines of various sizes, the most notable being that of Swiss-based Glencore’s Graspan Colliery. Elandspruit started delivering coal to the processing plant in June 2016. The plant is about 20km from the pit.

According to Jaap Kruger, plant manager at Elandspruit, Wescoal bought the processing plant from Muhanga in October 2014. The plant was built eight years ago and had an initial plant feed capacity of a little more than 150 000tpm. Muhanga’s mine (which was located next to the plant) ran out of coal years ago, but rather than dismantling the entire plant or building a new plant closer to Elandspruit, Wescoal bought it from Muhanga and decided to haul the mined material from the Elandspruit pit to the plant instead. The mine and the plant are linked via national and provincial roads.

Various upgrades and modifications have been made to the processing plant and it is now capable of treating well in excess of 200 000tpm feed material. As Wescoal expanded its operations, a second beneficiation plant was sourced from the Ermelo area and re-erected adjacent to the processing plant. The additional plant produces product mainly for the domestic-size coal market. Currently, the coal mined from Elandspruit Colliery’s open pit is sent to Eskom’s Tutuka Power Station near Standerton in Mpumalanga, as well as to the Majuba Power Station located between Volksrust and Amersfoort, also in Mpumalanga.

According to Kruger, both Tutuka and Majuba require a specific product, which can be produced by Wescoal at the plant. The ROM from different seams is mixed in the plant and processed before complying with the power stations’ specifications. ROM for the domestic-size coal market is mined selectively from Seam 1. It is mined from a portal that enters the highwall of the open pit on the southern side of the mine. There are four entries for ventilation purposes, which also provides access for workers and material.

Wescoal has certainly come a long way since the early days of Khanyisa and Intibane, and although their strategy is to maximise value from existing assets, be sure that management would not let a good deal slip through its fingers. It has a five-year contract with Eskom at Elandspruit, but will have to look further afield, or at expansions, to honour another five-year contract. Moabsvelden is an option, but the geology will be a challenge. Expansions at Elandspruit and Vanggatfontein is most likely to fill the gap, but new acquisitions are probably the answer.