Gibson Coal Mine: August 23, 2019
On August 22-23, 2019 a group of ERC students and faculty traveled to Owensville, near Princeton, IN to tour the Gibson County Coal South Mine facility. The group was made up of 9 industrial hygiene students, 7 occupational health nursing students, and 1 occupational safety and engineering student as well as 2 faculty members from occupational health nursing and industrial hygiene (pictured below outside the Gibson Coal Mine facility). The students that attended the trip wrote the following summaries on their experiences.
Rachel Farris Hamer and Tamara Small
Gibson Coal Mine promotes safety and hazard training for both new and seasoned employees. New employees are required to attend 32 hours of training from Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The initial 32 hours of MSHA training consists of gas hazards, ventilation control, and mine safety, which can be obtained at local colleges such as Ivy Tech or third-party instructors. In addition, all new and seasoned employees are required to attend an 8-hour training specific to the Gibson Coal Mine plant. The 8-hour training consists of the miners’ job duties, policy and procedures related to emergencies and underground hazards, such as fires, and training on mining equipment. For seasoned employees, the 8 hours of hazard training is a refresher course consisting of the aforementioned content.
Gibson Coal Mine employees receive ongoing training on safety and hazards year round. For example, employees engage in a safety meeting each day prior to their shift. They discuss assigned duties for that day, locations of each employee, obtaining a count of the number of employees entering and exiting the mines, and ensuring the employees are equipped with the proper PPE in order to prevent hazards and stay safe while working in the coal mine. Proper PPE consists of hard hats, safety glasses, steel toes boots, and overalls. Employees may be required to wear a respirator but that solely depends on their job duties.
While working in the mines, employees have an increased risk of exposure to fires and smoke hazards. Therefore, employees are required to attend an annual simulation training related to fire and smoke hazards. The simulation training is completed off-site at a local college, Indiana University at Indianapolis, and allows the employee to use the skills learned through hazard training to safely escape a hypothetical fire and smoke scenario via simulation. Local firefighters and emergency medical personnel are limited to fires and emergencies that occur above ground. For that reason, emergency response and fire training are included in hazardous training for employees working in the mines.
Gibson’s commitment to health and safety was extended to us during our visit to the coal mine. Their review of the Hazard Training ensured that each visitor had appropriate PPE (as described above), as well as a small puck location device, that each visitor had to carry in their pocket. We also went through the process of how to use the respirator kit each visitor had on his or her person, in case of emergency, and ensured the working of the lights on visitor helmets. This review training, as well as the entire experience, represented Gibson’s core values of safety, job security, and quality of life, and their belief that their most valuable assets are their employees.
General Informational Meeting
Megan Syck and Victoria Stotzer
The Gibson County South Coal Mine, since opening in 2014, employs approximately 370 people at this time. The mine is currently 565 feet deep and resides within the Illinois Coal basin. The current furthest point of the mine stretches from Indiana under the Wabash River into Illinois. This unique situation requires the Gibson County South Coal mine to obtain permits in both states. Almost all sub bituminous coal mined within this facility is sold and distributed to the thermal industry. This provides parts of the world with inexpensive electricity. During this tour (pictured right), many misconceptions were broken including that the mining is a cramped, dark and dusty environment. The reality was engineering controls and safety procedures were in place to ensure a culture of safety. These measures and controls have brought this older industry into a modern and effective place to work.
First Hour Underground Tour
John Singletary and Nathan Frank
The Gibson coal mine is owned by Alliance. Underground coal mines inherently pose many hazards. Training is required for guests and they are required to wear proper PPE such as steel toe boots, hard hats with lights in the front and back, safety glasses, reflective coveralls, and a belt with a 10-minute oxygen canister. All equipment not intrinsically safe is forbidden to be taken into the mine.
Tunnels are dug in a grid like structure that helps maintain adequate support and airflow. Walls and poly sheeting are placed at different areas of the mine to keep the air moving in the one continuous direction. After the areas are excavated, bolts are placed in the roof and walls to help reduce the risk of collapse.
The accumulation of methane gas occurs naturally in mines and this poses several hazards. Therefore, walls of the mine are sprayed with concrete with the intent of reducing the release of methane gas. This concrete spray also helps reinforce the bolts and helps reduce the occurrence of falling chunks of coal. Around the freshly dug out part of the mine a hissing sound could be heard which was the release of methane gas. All workers are required to wear monitors that measure methane concentration in real time. If the methane levels exceed threshold level, workers are contacted through intrinsically safe radios and told to leave the area until levels are safe.
In cases of evacuation, underground mine uses a yellow rope with blue reflector tags that help workers orient themselves while in the mine. These also serve as the escape path in the event of an emergency. Cones on the yellow rope are used to indicate the direction to the exits. During low visibility a worker can guide his hands along the rope. If they feel the blunt end of the cone it indicates they are heading away from the exits. Several workers are also trained as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to help in the event of an emergency as traditional EMTs are not permitted to enter the mines.
Second Hour Underground Tour
Jennifer Naylor and Ruth Norrell
We had the pleasure of taking a tour of the Gibson South Coal Mine in Indiana and to say we were impressed would be an understatement. We went on this trip with a little anxiety about the safety of being underground; all of our safety concerns were soon put to rest.
Dropping to 565 ft below the ground level and traveling 4-5 miles to the end of the mine was a unique experience. We learned that they incorporate many aspects of safety for all the workers. The walls at some intersections may have a mixture of carbide and cement in order to make the area more secure and safe. There are roof bolts and rib bolts to keep the area secure. There are signs hanging down in the middle of the roadways that tell you where you are and where the man doors, mine phone, storage, ambulance and firefighter equipment are located. There is a lifeline that hangs in the middle of the roadways from the ceiling that can be differentiated from other lines by the cones attached. The cones differ from other rectangular and flat surfaces so that it is easily identified in case you were unable to see due to power failure or smoke or dust.
The second hour of the tour had us deep in the mine looking at equipment. The electricity is supplied by high voltage boxes which are moved forward when the miner moves forward. The miner is the large piece of equipment that is at the front of the operation- it's about 11 feet wide and 35 feet long and can cut approximately 700 ft in an 8 hour shift. This machine is 55 tons and can be very dangerous to others; everyone wears a proximity locator which makes the machine unmovable if too close. The front is a long roller with 56-60 bits which are tipped with a carbide tip. When the tips erode, the bit is removed and repaired for reuse. Much of their equipment is repaired and reused in their mines by other staff using sites that are no longer mined- in other words, they conscientiously reuse and repurpose to maintain efficient systems.
At the face of the coal mine, the area of digging for coal, you hear a whistling known as methane coming through the ribs (sides of the walls). The area is moist as the area is below sea level and salt water seeps in through the walls.
One’s fanciful mind turns to JRR Tolkien’s dwarves with their mines. In one movie, the scene is a huge underground room with recurring columns. It is so vast it looks like several football fields. It seems unlikely that there is a room that big underground! Having seen the mine, it is possible and actually exists! Now, if we can just pretty it up like the dwarves did instead of closing it in.
Preparation Plant Tour
Judy Jobe and Monica Livers
The Coal Preparation Plant (CPP) at the Gibson South mine in Princeton, Indiana is the magical place where the Run-of-Mine (ROM) coal is washed of all soil, separated from rock, and sorted into graded sized chunks. These graded sized chunks are then further refined into fine and coarse loads, which are then prepared for transport to the buyers. As the coal comes up from the mine it is placed in a huge stockpile. A bulldozer is used to push coal from the stockpile conveyor belts to start the separation process. Gravity is used to separate the lighter coal from the heavier rock. The process then continues with the coal going through a cyclone, a type on conical vessel that also contains magnetite. The heavier particles are ejected out the spigot while the lighter particles are caught in an upward stream that goes out the overflow outlet of the cyclone. The cyclone is also lined with high quality ceramic tiles to help control the pressure within the cyclone. After the coal is separated and clean, it goes into dryers to remove any remaining water. It is then ready to be loaded onto railcars, trucks, barges or ships.
The coal from the Gibson South mine (pictured to the right) is 70% coal/30% rock and dirt; 40%-50% is sold in the US, 50%-60% is sold overseas. In 2018, 100% of the coal sold in the US was used in utility plants with installed pollution control devices.
The amazing thing about the entire CCP process is that it only takes 3 people to operate the plant. One person is doing the bulldozing, one is on the floor visually checking the machinery, and the third person operates the control room. The control room of the CCP is the “brain” center. Here the employee can watch the actual machinery via cameras and can also monitor all the machine settings via digital feedback monitors.
Sampling of the ROM coal and the final product is on a continuous basis to make sure a uniform product is achieved.
South Coal Handling
Logan Tipton and Thomas Gerding
The entirety of the underground portion of the tour took place in the south coal mine. It was interesting to learn that all operations take place along one seam of coal instead of going through various seams. The coal is thicker at the south mine on its northern side because of its basin-like topography that is centered between the two mines. The size of this particular seam allows for a more efficient mining operation. This results in less rock being extracted by the “miner” and allows the plant to process and produce a purer product.
Only about one-third of the employees are actually miners and the rest of the employees are essentially support staff: management, IT, HR, etc. All coal here is sold to the thermal industry for electricity. The “miner” is a large, 55-ton piece of equipment that hacks away at the “face” of the mine which is the furthest point in the mine that ground has been broken. At the face of the mine, one might hear a whistling sound which is actually methane infiltration into the mine. For this reason, each employee wears a gas monitor which ensures that things remain safe for employees while they are in the mine, underground. While no annual fitness test is required, there is a hearing conservation program in place, as well as an annual first aid training program.
Due to the economic importance of agriculture in the state of Indiana, regulations state that mines are required to leave a percentage of the seam in place to support the surface. In this case, around 60% of the available coal is being left in a grid-like pattern to comply. This results in around $300 million worth of product being left underground. Overall, this was an eye-opening experience that we were all able to participate in and gain a better understanding of the mining industry. If it wasn’t for this trip, I would still believe that mining is performed manually, using pickaxes.
Coal Handling at South Coal Mine
Brendan Hanson and Jacob Brock
Much to our surprise, only about a third of employees are in the underground mine mining coal. The coal type extracted at this mine is low in sulfur and is sub-bituminous coal, one of four types of coal. The tour included a hazard class in the beginning, a visit into the underground mine, the extraction process, coal cleansing and “loadout”.
While underground, there are numerous ways to escape if one is in a potentially life threatening situation. One of the escape ideas involves each person carrying a small oxygen supplier. There is rope hanging from the ceiling with cones on it which shows mining employees which way to go in the case of a total blackout and employees cannot see.
Once the coal is washed and dried, it is transported by belt to a couple of enormous coal piles. These coal piles will sit near a 15 ft gated drop into which a bulldozer will push the coal. The coal is then transferred upstream to the tractor-trailer loadout station by belt. Semi-trucks will pull underneath the station and piles of coal will be loaded into the trucks. The station is large enough for two semis to be filled at one time. The trucks must cover the coal before they leave the yard. About 50% of the coal is burned domestically, with 100% of the coal burned in the USA is for electricity. Customers who are located in the southeastern United States have their coal loaded onto a train and transferred via railway system.
Below Ground Air Quality Management
Yao Addor and Vishal Nathu
One of the activities during this trip was the tour of the Gibson South underground mine production site. It was a fascinating and insightful tour. We rode an elevator to get to the underground about 600 feet below the surface, where the coal is extracted.
As IH students, one of the aspects we found interesting and challenging was the air quality management below ground. In fact, emissions of particulate matter, CH4, CO, SO2, NOx, and other pollutants as well as thermal discomfort are common issues in underground mines, making such spaces potentially unsafe. However, from our time within the underground coal mine, the air quality and temperature were at comfortable levels. The ventilation system in place to provide adequate breathable and viable atmosphere in the vast mine was extremely impressive. According to the health and safety manager, a powerful industrial fan was used to deliver purified air into the underground space of tens of miles long, six feet wide and four feet high tunnels. The ventilation system operated at approximately 1500 CFM and plastic curtains were used to direct the air flow through the maze. Overall, we were positively impacted by the tour and many of the common myths we have heard were debunked.
Employee Clinic and Healthcare
Sherry Steele Cooper
The ERC trip to the Gibson County Coal Mine South, which is operated by the Alliance Resource Partners, was an enlightening experience. I was not going into this trip with the most positive thoughts regarding coal mining. When we were met by Gibson’s General Manager in the parking lot, I knew my preconceived opinions regarding coal mining were going to be tested. I was expecting the facility to be dirty or messy. It was surprisingly very clean and well maintained. The employees were all very welcoming and eager to answer our questions. Gibson’s General Manager personally led the safety training and aboveground tour. Since this was a group trip with students in the ERC’s graduate programs, the questions asked by the students were in-depth. The staff was extremely knowledgeable and took their time giving detailed answers while encouraging more questions. Safety was the number one priority to the Gibson staff. The tour group of students were given safety training and provided with safety gear. The staff seemed to be proud of providing us with these safety precautions and ensuring our anxiety of being underground was lessoned. The workers expressed pride in the benefits of being Alliance employees throughout the tour. One benefit provided by Alliance is free healthcare to the employees and their family members. The employees are not charged any premiums or copays. Gibson County Coal Mine South has a clinic conveniently next to the coal mining plant. This is open to all employees and their covered family members. The clinic is open every Monday through Friday. It is staffed by one nurse and two nurse practitioners. The clinic provides general healthcare including: flu shots, sports physicals, healthcare prevention and education. This benefit supplied by Alliance is one of many topics discussed with pride by the staff. In all, this trip educated me in the processes of coal mining safety but most impressively provided me with the insight into the daily working comradery and pride of the coal miners.
Thank you to everyone at Gibson Coal Mine for facilitating this tour and providing an excellent educational experience for UC ERC students and faculty!