Ever since I found out that Solid Energy sponsors (almost free) tours of its open cut coal mine at Stockton I've wanted to go visit. Yes, there are plenty of coal mines (at Huntly) close to where I live but they don't offer 5-6 hour guided tours with an ex-miner-guide mostly paid for by the company! Mines are such dangerous (not to mention controversial) places (like this local one closed today due to methane build up) and very few allow the public inside. I spend way too much time searching the internet looking for mine tours, so I know this for sure.
|DURING: An open cut mine is visually confusing because its really just a big mucky mess in a constant state of flux.|
The emphasis of the tour was two-fold: looking at BIG diggers and other kit, which was what the two guys on the tour were there for; and showing off a cutting edge revegetation programme which is probably why Solid Energy sponsors our visit. "Look what extremes we go to to appease environmentalists! See how we tenderly cherish our rare snails! Isn't it pretty! Isn't it natural looking!"
|Stockpiles of coal at the top, muddy hole to be filled at the bottom, revegetation in the foreground|
Yeah yeah, whatever, show me how you get the coal. I'm not very interested in the big machines (which are actually quite small compared to Australian mining kit I've seen) and I'm pretty cynical about the reveg. Show me how the mine works!
|20 metres of sandstone scaped away and now they are digging out a thick seam of rich black coal|
Oh before they do that, they scoop up 15cm or so of what passes for top soil on the plateau with all the plants in situ and truck that over to a part of the site where all the coal is already extracted and the ground prepared. Once that is out of the way, the overburden is scooped into trucks and trundled across the site to be dumped in a big hole. When they get down to the coal they scoop that into trucks and dump onto stock piles. Depending on the quality of coal it might get washed and crushed before being blended (and this is the bit that gets me) with lower quality coal so as to make the most possible money. Yes that's right, the high quality coal is too valuable to waste on today's low commodity prices, so they mix it up with rubbishy coal that is even more polluting. Eventually the coal sails down the mountain in ariel wagons, is loaded onto trains bound for Lyttleton port and then onto ships, mostly to be burned in Indian steel works.
|One last look down on the mine before we go...|
I carried my new insights and memories like a glowing ember inside for the rest of my week on the West Coast. By the time we drove back over snowy Arthur's Pass I was on fire with new ideas for making. Watch this space to see where this mining experience takes my art next, but first expect more posts with photos from other places we saw in the South Island.
|Me and a really big truck|