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Arch's Leer mining complex ramping up outside Grafton

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PAM KASEY / The State Journal The Leer longwall operation will get started in the fourth quarter, once these 208 longwall shields are in place. PAM KASEY / The State Journal The Leer longwall operation will get started in the fourth quarter, once these 208 longwall shields are in place.
Raw coal comes out of the hill opposite on the belts at the left and enters Leer’s prep plant. Clean coal exits right for loading on trains. Refuse goes up to a slurry cell out of view. Raw coal comes out of the hill opposite on the belts at the left and enters Leer’s prep plant. Clean coal exits right for loading on trains. Refuse goes up to a slurry cell out of view.
GRAFTON, WV -

It takes years to ramp up a major coal mining operation.

Granted, Arch Coal's Leer Mining Complex outside Grafton underwent a change of ownership after it was permitted to International Coal Group in 2008. That had to slow things down. 

Still, it's a huge job. 

The long bridge to the complex from U.S. Route 50 over Three Fork Creek of the Tygart Valley River was built in 2008, according to Scott Boylen, Leer president and general manager. The road out to the mine wasn't built until 2010. 

Arch acquired the mine in 2011 and made the first cut of coal in November 2011. Back then, the only access was a 325-foot shaft and a crane with a bucket that hauled men and supplies down and coal up — just three tons at a time.

A proper elevator didn't go in until February 2012, Boylen said. Employment then was around 30. 

A major constraint was haul-out capacity. A temporary vertical belt put in place in June 2012, after the 1,400-foot slope from the bottom of the mine up and out through the side of the hill to the preparation plant was constructed, took that from three tons per bucket to 800 tons per hour. The permanent belts that started up in November 2012 took it to the design capacity of 7,600 tons per hour.

Employment at the site is 362 now, with 75 miners underground at any one time and three shifts a day, seven days a week. 

Yet, a year and a half after the first coal came out of the ground, continuous miners are still developing the first panel for the faster longwall operation to come and the prep plant is operating at about one-quarter capacity, Boylen said. 

And none of the mine's coal is yet under contract. 

About 90 percent of the Leer mine's production is expected to be metallurgical coal for making steel and 10 percent steam coal for making electricity. The coal is being tested now by steel manufacturers in Europe and Korea and by power producers in the United States and, he said, is meeting and exceeding expectations.

He expects full longwall production of 3.2 million to 3.5 million tons per year to begin in the fourth quarter.

Boylen describes the mine as "compact," and it's easy to see what he means. Seen from one high vantage point across a dip, raw coal comes from the left of the view out of the opposite hill and enters the preparation plant at center. Clean coal goes out to the right and may be loaded onto rail cars from there. The elevator house is visible up and to the right on the hill that's being mined, and the coarse refuse and fines are transported up to a slurry cell above and beyond that.

The mine lies on a CSX line that runs between Grafton and Cumberland, Md.  That line will carry most of the coal east to the Port of Baltimore. Since loading its first train in October 2012, the mine has loaded 22 trains in total so far, or about one every nine days.

Modern Practice and Technology

As a new mine, Leer makes use of modern mining practices.

"Arch is highly capitalized," said Russ Lorince, vice president of external affairs. "Their business model is, they're not going to do it on the cheap." 

The preparation plant where coal is washed, for example, is state of the art, he said. 

The system incorporates alkaline lime sand into the coarse and fine refuse at the prep plant to neutralize the acidic slurry that's produced by the sulfurous Lower Kittanning seam. Some plants do this at the back end, Boylen said, but the Leer mine creates a more homogeneous and effective mix by doing it up front. The process is also automated, metering in the right amount of lime sand. 

The coal loadout is another example. It can load a train of up to 130 railcars at the rate of 4,000 tons per hour, and is equipped with a tag reader that identifies rail cars from their signature cards and dispenses coal to each car's maximum capacity. 

Employees

Employees at the Leer mine have come largely from other Arch operations. 

"We've relocated internally existing Arch employees from some of the mines that, given the condition of the market, we've idled," Boylen said, referring to the Vindex mining complex in the Maryland panhandle and mines run by Arch subsidiary Wolf Run Mining Co.

Some employees also have come from subsidiary Patriot Mining Co.'s surface mine outside Morgantown that was mined out. 

"So we've been, I think, astute to recognizing the value of our employees," he said. 

About two-thirds of the 362 current employees were shifted internally, Boylen estimated.

As coal markets rebound, employees could be recalled to the idled Vindex and Wolf Run mines, Lorince pointed out, and Leer would hire new workers.

More of the mine's employees live in adjacent Preston County than in any other county, Boylen said, with others from Barbour, Taylor, Monongalia, Marion and beyond —  more than 30 counties in all.

Safety

Boylen and Lorince spoke of the emphasis Arch places on safety. In 2006, the company adopted the behavior-based safety system, which enlists employees in identifying risky behaviors.

"If you can get people working with a program versus a top-down approach, it's very powerful," Boylen said.

Arch touts its safety record. In 2012, the lost-time incident rate of 0.72 was the company's best safety record ever, according to the company's website, and three times lower than the industry average of 2.35 lost-time injuries per 200,000 hours worked. 

"2012 marked the seventh consecutive year Arch ranked first among our major diversified coal industry peers in safety," the website reads.

Arch's incident level spiked when the company bought ICG, Lorince said, but came back down when some legacy operating conditions were addressed.

Leer mine employees suffered two incidents requiring stitches in 2012, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and one incident so far this year, in which an employee was knocked into a roof bolter; no injury was reported.

Corporate Citizenship

Arch Coal and the Leer Mining Complex are engaging with the community in several ways.

Boylen himself, who grew up in Shinnston, lives in Taylor County and has two daughters at Grafton High School. 

Recognizing that Grafton is not historically a mining community, Boylen said, the company has offered education sessions to explain the mining process.

Feeling that the closed atmosphere at many coal mines hurts the operations in their communities, he strives for a more open atmosphere: inviting groups of community leaders in for tours and holding monthly Citizens' Advisory Panel meetings to update the community on activities at the mine and hear questions and concerns.

"If you're doing things as prescribed, you have nothing to hide," he said. 

Charitable contributions include a 25-year renewable contract the company has entered with the Taylor County Soccer Association for a piece of land that will hold a soccer complex and a $10,000 donation to the Friends of McKinney Field toward upgrades to the football and soccer field at Grafton High School.

"The company has expressed interest in continuing outreach in the Grafton community," said City Manager Kevin Stead. "They are good partners in Grafton and Taylor County. We're very pleased."