Uncovering Coal from the Prairie Landscape
By Awake! correspondent in Canada
THE car turned off the main highway toward the gray “mountains” outlined ahead on the prairie landscape. In almost every direction bleak “ranges” seemed to rise from the flat plains. We were on our way to visit an unusual mine, not in those “mountains,” but beside them.
The road crossed an earth-filled dam holding back nine miles of reservoir for the huge electric generating station just ahead. A sign read: “Boundary Dam Power Station—Saskatchewan Power Corporation,” a reminder that we were only seven miles north of the Canada—United States border. The car passed between the power station and an enormous stockpile of coal, then turned to follow the edge of a “mountain range” which proved to be, not rock and stone, but mounds of dirt laid side by side. Around one of the mounds the road became a narrow track leading to the edge of a deep trench.
The two small children scrambled excitedly out of the car. They were cautioned not to stray, for, although it was a holiday, there was still danger in wandering about the mine unattended. But our host was well prepared to conduct our tour of this unusual mining operation safely. Won’t you join us now?
Machines That Uncover a Mine
Our first surprise is when we peer into the mine, not down a dark shaft, but into a gaping pit some fifty feet deep! It was about one hundred years ago that strip mining first made such excavations to uncover coal from the prairie landscape.
But it is the towering machine beside the open cut that commands our attention. It is an enormous walking dragline—nick-named “Mr. Klimax”! We have been told that it is the largest one of its kind in Canada and that such machines are a major factor in successful strip mining. Ah, here is the foreman in charge today who has kindly taken time to provide an unexpected highlight for our tour.
“It’s as high as a ten-story building and weighs 1,700 tons,” the foreman tells us about “Mr. Klimax.” That’s about one thousand times heavier than our car!
“It can dig ninety feet deep and gobbles up thirty-five cubic yards in a single bite,” he continues. “But since we’re not operating the machine today, perhaps you’d like to take a look inside it?”
Indeed we would! We mount the huge base, and the foreman unlocks the door as if we were about to enter a large building. Inside we stare in awe at the giant gears, cables and motors.
“All the motors and gears are housed inside this main enclosure,” the foreman explains. “These control the cables that work the boom and bucket on the front of the machine. When the boom is lowered, one cable drops the bucket and another pulls or drags it along the ground, filling it with dirt. The boom rises, the entire machine swings on its base and the bucket is tipped, allowing the dirt to fall on the spoil pile beside the open cut.”
Now we climb another set of metal stairs, this time to the small operator’s cab, which sits in an upper front corner of the machine. From this vantage point one man uses three levers and two pedals to control the entire digging operation.
“It’s as easy as driving a car,” the foreman smiles. “The operator can communicate with the mine office at any time by means of the two-way radio in his cab.”
The view of the prairie stretching below is stirring, even to a little girl for whom the adventure has included the danger that coal dust or grease might stain a pretty dress. And for a little boy who sits in the operator’s padded chair and grasps the mighty levers with his tiny hands, it inspires the delightful imagination of childhood.
As we make our way down toward the exit we marvel at how such a monstrous machine could move across the landscape.
“When it moves it lowers the huge pontoons at its sides, lifts up on them and leapfrogs backwards. That is why it is called a ‘walking’ dragline,” explains the foreman. “This is a delicate operation, however, since the 240-foot boom and 20-ton bucket must be precisely balanced or the whole unit will topple.”
“Mr. Klimax” took a long walk across country recently. That must have been quite a sight!
“Yes, the big dragline walked about eight miles from another mine to this present site at the rate of about six feet per minute. Since it operates on electricity, we had to run cables and small huts—or ‘doghouses’ as we call them—all the way. The doghouses contain transformers that reduce the line voltage of 72,000 volts to 4,160 volts, which is just right for ‘Mr. Klimax.’”
Along the way “Mr. Klimax” crossed a railway line, two highways, a river and a stream. But the most difficult leg of the journey was through the valley downstream from the dam.
“The vertical drop through there is ninety feet and we had to cut a special road at 10-percent grade through the valley’s walls,” the foreman tells us. Nonetheless, sixteen days after it started its stroll, “Mr. Klimax” arrived safely on the new job.
You might think that this digging machine must be the largest one in the world, but not so. In fact, it would appear dwarfed next to one that does a similar job in southern Ohio, U.S.A. Its digging bucket has a 220-cubic-yard capacity.
How can strip mining be economical when it involves the use of draglines costing many millions of dollars? The efficiency with which these machines remove overburden to reach the coal makes strip mining practical. They usually operate twenty-four hours a day. That way the mine here, for example, can produce coal at about one-sixth the cost of shaft mines elsewhere in Canada.
A Walk on a Coal Mine
Now, since you have joined us for our tour, come along for an unusual experience! Back in the car we make our way beside barren spoil piles that look like desolate badlands. Following the road down a steep grade, we come to a stop on a field of black we’re parked on a coal mine!
“The coal seam on which we’re standing could stretch for two miles,” our host remarks. “The coal is a type called lignite. Once considered inferior, better burning methods have now made it a choice fuel for electric generating stations.”
“It’s just like being in a canyon.”
“The walls are about sixty feet high where we are here.”
“And how deep is the coal seam?”
“It averages about six feet in depth. The seams rise and fall along their length like ocean waves. At some places they end in a ‘washout,’ where the coal suddenly stops and then begins again several yards beyond.”
At least two years before any stripping is done, the seams are plotted and a program is planned that will reduce movement of heavy equipment and give minimum hauling distance.
“When the coal is uncovered, bulldozers remove the top few inches and special sweepers may clean the coal if needed,” continues our host. “Then power shovels on caterpillar treads move in and load the hauling trucks, some of which can hold eighty tons.”
As we survey the scene and examine the coarse lumps of coal we are intrigued with how such vast deposits were formed. Our host is both technically versed on the subject and also a mature Christian minister who appreciates the creative activity of earth’s Maker, Jehovah God.
“Portions of trees can often be recognized in seams of lignite coal,” he explains. “Evidently the coal resulted from such decaying vegetation.”
Our discussion turns to the length of time required for transformation of such organic material into coal, since commonly accepted theories involving millions of years conflict with the Bible’s accurate chronology. Our host reminds us that before the global flood of Noah’s day the earth’s entire climate was that of a humid hothouse. This condition existed for thousands of years after the creation of plant life on the third “day” of creation. It was very suitable for growth of huge forests and heavy vegetation and also the preliminary decomposition of the trees and plants when they died off.
It is noteworthy that chemical and physical changes to form coal result from tremendous pressure and heat generated by such pressure. Time is not all-important. During the one year that the Flood waters covered the earth, tremendous pressures must have been exerted on these decomposed organic materials. It may well be that these abnormal conditions played a major part in a more rapid formation of coal.
Scientific studies confirm not only the climatic conditions that once existed but also that coal can be formed in much shorter time than is commonly believed. In 1963 the New York Times reported that in just six weeks a group of Australian scientists were able to produce coal that was chemically indistinguishable from brown coal mined in Victoria State.
A Valuable Resource
As we arrive back at the power station our host motions toward the enormous stockpile of coal.
“Haulers drive up that incline onto a weigh scale, which measures the coal they deliver. It is then dumped into an intake hopper, and crushers reduce the size of the lumps for storage. Later it is carried by the enclosed conveyer belt that crosses above us into bunkers high in the powerhouse. From there it is fed to large ball mills, which pulverize the coal until it is as fine as ladies’ face powder.”
The pulverized coal is then forced with air jets into the boiler furnaces, where the explosive mixture burns almost like gas. Steam from the boilers drives turbines, which turn generators that will produce 432,000 kilowatts of electricity when the power station is complete.
But the contribution of coal from beneath the prairie’s landscape is not ended in the inferno of the furnace. It provides yet another service in “fly ash.” This fine dust is extracted as a by-product from the burning of lignite coal. It is a useful additive in making concrete. Huge silos adjoining the power station can store 4,250 tons of fly ash for loading giant tank trucks, which transport the dust to construction industries.
Thousands of tons of fly ash indicate the burning of great quantities of coal. In fact, when the new addition to the power station is complete, annual consumption is expected to exceed two million tons of coal. This demand will raise Saskatchewan to the second-largest coal-producing province in Canada.
A high level of production is expected to continue for some time, as known reserves in this area alone, around Estevan, are estimated at 450 million tons. And this is but one portion of the total coal fields in Saskatchewan, which cover about 10,000 square miles, or roughly the area of Belgium!
Demands for coal are increasing. The chemical industry requires coal to turn out a variety of products, including perfumes, medicines, plastics and fertilizers. And coal remains prominent as a cheap source of heat and power, the main use for lignite coal mined from the Canadian prairies. Yet there appears to be little danger of depleting supplies in the near future, for some authorities believe known world reserves could last another 5,000 years at the present rate of use. Indeed, coal remains an important and valuable natural resource.
Appreciating Earth’s Riches
Leaving the power station, as the “mountains” recede in the distance, we wonder at the desolate spoil piles left as barren reminders of the prairie’s hidden riches. Under the present system of things earth’s resources are mined primarily for commercial profit, so where law does not require spoil piles to be leveled and covered with fertile soil this expense is usually avoided.
How sad that more appreciation is not shown for the treasures provided in our beautiful earth. We are thankful that soon Jehovah’s righteous new order will preserve our planet’s beauty. Then earth’s resources will be used so that, instead of adding desolation, there will be a spreading of paradise until the very desert blossoms as the rose.—Isa. 35:1.