I recently visited Black Thunder, one of America’s most infamous surface mines. Situated in the middle of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, it features some of the biggest earthmoving machines on earth, all working to uncover and extract coal. Before I get into all those monster machines, let me explain how much of a pain it was to get there in the first place.
First off, the American mining industry is as old-school as it gets. I’m not even sure they know what the internet is. They do the exact same things today that they did fifty years ago.
This brings me to workforce development. Mining executives are scratching their heads because young people don’t seem to be flocking to the industry. Why? Mostly because young people ― or people in general, for that matter ― don’t even know that the American mining industry exists. Our industry does a horrible job of inviting people into operations and educating society on what it takes to keep the lights on.
This is where I come in. I call up mine operators ― in this case Arch Coal ― and explain how I’d like to visit their mines, photograph their operations, and then share their work with my online audience of millions for free. They are welcome to review every single photograph I take. Still, no one answers my calls or emails. I want to say a whole lot more on this subject, but I’ll keep my mouth shut for now…
Regardless of corporate failing to acknowledge my emails, phone calls, and other messages, there I was driving onto their Black Thunder mine anyway, thanks to a very kind individual who invited me out.
Why do all of this for free on a Sunday? First off, I absolutely love it. Who wouldn’t want to see the largest dragline on earth in action? Secondly, from a business standpoint, trips like this help me build my portfolio. The bigger my mining portfolio is, the better off our business will be, once mining companies figure out that they probably oughta try something different when it comes to recruitment. Most everyone that works in mining sports grey hair ― it’s only a matter of time.
Now to the fun part! Immediately upon driving through the front gate of the mine, I saw towering silos and conveyors, enormous shop bays, and monster trucks either being serviced or hauling coal. Talk about sensory overload. The scale is staggering.
After driving around the equipment yard and shop, we began descending into the actual mine. Enormous Cat and Komatsu haul trucks cruised past our tiny Ford van. Some trucks carried mountains of coal, while others had massive loads of overburden. After a long drive down a black earthen ramp, we found ourselves in the biggest cut on mine property.
Enter the number nine dragline. This behemoth, which is the largest dragline by dimensions on earth, moves nearly 130 yards of material in one pass. She’s in charge of moving the overburden resting on top of the lower seam of coal. Thanks to her electric motors, all you can hear is the whirling of cables and banging of chains on the bucket. My mouth was wide open with drool coming out of both sides for the entire time!
In front of the dragline was a fleet of D11T dozers working furiously to smooth out a pad for the dragline to walk on. These weren’t just any dozers though ― they were all autonomous. One guy in a trailer by the mine office manages all of them at once. The word “autonomous” usually rustles people’s jimmies, but this technology is neat. The dozers push back and forth all day and night, only stopping for fuel.
After the dragline were the shovels, tasked with removing the first layer of overburden. The Bucyrus and P&H shovels loaded Cat haul trucks, ranging from 789s to Cat’s latest model, the 798AC. More on that truck later… This was the first time I’d seen rope shovels loading trucks. While the shovel loaded a truck on one side with only two passes, another backed in on the other. Ideally speaking, each shovel never stops swinging for the entire shift, moving 80 yards of worthless Wyoming earth per pass.
The trucks hauling overburden travel around the main cut and dump on the previously mined portion of the cut, starting the reclamation process. Reclamation trails mining activities, so only a single strip of earth is exposed at once. It’s incredible. The mined-out, yet pristine land trailing the mining operation bears no hint of coal mining.
After the shovels were the loaders. The mine employs the largest loaders in the world ― Cat 994Ks and LeTourneau 1250s. They load both upper and lower seam coal into haul trucks with enormous coal bodies on them. Coal is much lighter than earth, so the dump bodies can accommodate a significantly higher volume while still hauling the same weight. The custom beds make the already-enormous trucks even bigger.
Back to the trucks… Caterpillar’s customer testing program is known as “field follow.” They build their next-generation machines, test them internally, and then send them to both the proving grounds in Arizona and also out to customer sites. Cat chose Black Thunder as the customer test site for the new Cat 798 electric-drive truck. I was lucky enough to be at the public unveiling of the new truck in November in Arizona ― however, they didn’t load the truck with anything. This time around, I had the opportunity to see the trucks doing what they do best, hauling up to 410 tons of material at once. It was a treat.
I could go on and on, because this place was nuts. My morning at the mine was so worth the money and time I spent to travel to Wyoming. I was lucky enough to create photographs of draglines, shovels, loaders, and trucks that exist nowhere else. Now I just need to get other mines to let me visit and share what they do too!