Articles tagged with: potash

Stories from 3000 Feet Down – Part 2

This is Part 2 of my story about working at a potash mine in Saskatchewan. If you haven’t read Part 1, here is the link to it “Stories from 3000 Feet Down – Part 1“.  It’s best to read it first.

Flooded Russian Potash Mine

As mentioned in Part 1, water seepage and potential leaks were always an operational concern. There were essentially two main fears; (i) that a borer would tunnel into an unforeseen collapse zone (i.e. an ancient sink hole) or (ii) that long term deformations in the mine would result in cracking of the overlying protective salt layer resulting in water inflow.
Any time wet spots were seen on the roof, the mining engineers or geologists were called out to take a look.
Sometimes the wet area was due to pockets of interstitial moisture. Other times it might have just been oil from a blown hydraulic hose on the borer. Wet spots all look the same when covered in dust.
Water ingress was such a concern in that an unmined pillar of 100 ft. would be left around all exploration core holes. These 3,000 ft. holes were supposedly plugged after drilling but you could never be certain of that. Furthermore, you couldn’t be certain of their location at potash depth. Hence, we didn’t want to mine anywhere close to them.
The process plant also had several water injection wells whereby excess water was injected into geological formations deep below the potash level. We left a 700 ft. pillar around these injection wells.
Carnallite is a magnesium salt that we encountered in some areas of the mine. It was weaker than the halite, resulting in more rapid room closure and deteriorating ground conditions. It was also hydroscopic and could absorb moisture out of the air. Sometimes we would water the underground travel ways to mitigate dust issues. With the resulting high humidity sometimes the carnallite areas might start to drip water. This resulted in another call to the engineers to come out and investigate.

Working on a production crew brings new learnings.

My period as a production foreman was great. When first assigned to this role, I was less than enthusiastic but when it was over 6 months later, I appreciated the opportunity. As a production foreman, we had a crew of 15 to 20 people responsible for mining 9,500 tons over a 12 hour shift. There was one foreman in the underground dispatch room and one face foreman travelling around supervising the borers and inspecting conveyors.
Ore grade control was a key responsibility of both the borer operator and mine foreman. The goal for the borer operator was to cut the roof even with the top of the high grade potash bed. The goal for the foreman was to ensure the operator was maintaining his goal. However, when looking at the potash face all the beds generally looked the same, especially when they are dusty.

Feel the glow

One key distinction was that the middle low grade bed had a higher percentage of insol clays. It was used as a marker bed. You would take your hardhat lamp and run it down against the wall. In the upper high grade potash bed, the cap lamp would have a halo, not unlike like the glowing salt rock lamps you see in stores. In the marker bed the halo would disappear, like putting a lamp against a rock wall.
Thus using the lamp you could identify the top of the marker bed, which was supposed to be kept 3.5 to 4 ft. off the floor. If borer operators were consistently more than 12 “ inches off optimal level, they could be written up (i.e. reprimanded). This was one of my tasks as foreman and I always hated doing it.
Lasers were used to guide the borer in a straight line but the marker bed was used for vertical control. Nowadays the use of machine mounted ore grade monitors is an option. By the way, if you’re looking at a potash project, be aware of the grade units being reported. A previous blog discusses this “Potash Ore Grades – Check the Units”.
The underground conveyor network consisted of 32” conveyors, feeding onto 42” conveyors, feeding on to 48”or 54” conveyors. Typically the length of the larger conveyors was in the range of a mile (5,000-6,000 ft.). The conveyors were all roof mounted, allowing for easy clean up underneath. Roof mounting was critical. Even some of the 600 hp conveyor drive stations were roof mounted, structure and all.

Conveyors were the reason for my one and only safety incident.

4-rotor side pass

4-rotor borer side pass

First a little background. The underground ore storage capacity at K1 was about 3,000 tons. If the underground bins were filled anytime during a shift, the entire conveyor system would automatically trip off; all 10 miles of it. If you happened to have a mile long conveyor shut off while it was loaded to the brim with ore, good luck starting it up again.
If this happened, there were two choices. You could bring in the operators from the borers to start shovelling off the conveyor until it was unloaded enough to re-start. This option went over like a lead balloon with the crew.
The other not so great option was to use a scooptram to lift the belt counterweight up to reduce the belt tension. This allows the drive pulleys to start spinning. Then by lowering the counterweight back down perhaps the drives can inch the belt along. The idea being that possibly the momentum of the moving mass of potash would keep it moving. The downside is that you could break the belt. There was nothing worse than having to tell the cross shift they have both a stalled conveyor and a broken belt. Have a good shift people.
At 4 a.m. working as night shift face foreman, I knew the underground bins were nearing full. Driving along I saw that the mainline conveyor was full and spilling over the sides. A worst case conveyor shutdown was imminent. I called the dispatch office to ask why he hasn’t been shutting down borers and conveyors but there was no answer.
After several unanswered calls I started to hustle back to dispatch. I remember driving alongside the conveyor thinking “don’t shut off, don’t shut off”. Just then a heavy duty service vehicle pulled out of a cross-cut and I plowed right into it. I wasn’t going very fast (~20 km), but when a Toyota Land Cruiser hits a steel plate truck, the Toyota is the loser. The front end crumpled, and I later was told that there was major frame damage.
I’m not sure why the other driver didn’t see my lights. I’m also certain his lights were not on. Nevertheless, I did get written up for this incident with a reprimand for my personnel file. The reprimander had become the reprimandee. I still insist that the incident wasn’t my fault.
The Land Cruiser laid around the shaft for a few days until it could be hoisted up to surface. Everyone coming on shift got to see it . Once it was hoisted up, it laid outside the headframe for a few more days for all the surface workers to see. Ultimately, this incident resulted in the underground miners giving me the nickname “Crash”.
This is where I’ll end the potash story.

Conclusion

Saskatchewan potash is a unique mining situation. It has its own history and mining method. The people are great and it’s a great place to learn the difference between engineering school and real life.

Mine Engineering Dream Team

By the way, I also learned that small town Saskatchewan loves their senior hockey league (20-30 year age range). The local towns compete all winter; sometimes combatively. It was Esterhazy vs. Langenburg vs. Whitewood vs. Rocanville vs. Stockholm vs. Moosomin.
One of the first questions asked in my job interview at Mosaic was if I played hockey. You see, the ideal candidate for the job would have been an ex-NHL player, preferably an enforcer, who is also a mining engineer. Gotta stack the local team.

 

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Stories from 3000 Feet Down – Part 1

Mosaic K1 Mine

Between 1985 and 1989 I worked at the Mosaic K1 potash mine in Saskatchewan, Canada.  I had roles that included mine engineer, chief mine engineer and production foreman.   This was relatively early in my work career so it represented an important learning period of time for me.  Each of these roles gave me a different perspective about a mining operation.   In this two part blog, I’ll share some stories relating to the uniqueness of potash mining.
The K1 mine is 15 kilometres outside the town of Esterhazy; about 2.5 hours east of Regina.  The mine is located at a depth of around 3,000 feet below surface, hence the title of this blog.  I will be referring to imperial units in this text because when the mine started production in the early 1960’s the maps and units were imperial and continued on through the 80’s.   At my previous job with Syncrude we used metric units, so it took some time to mentally recalculate back.
Geologically, the province wide Esterhazy Member was being mined, named after the town.  The layer was about 8 ft high.  In other regions of Saskatchewan they are mining a different potash layer (the Patience Lake Member) which is located a few feet higher up. These mines have slightly different mining conditions than we experienced in Esterhazy.  An example of their conditions is shown in the photo, where a parting layer can result in a roof collapse.
The Mosaic K1 and K2 mine shafts are interconnected at depth 6 miles.  The total expanse of the K1 and K2 underground workings probably extends laterally over 18 miles.  Back in the 80’s they said there were over 1,000 miles of tunnel underground and probably a lot more now since the mines are still operating.  There is now a new K3 shaft which allows access to more distant potash reserves.

4-rotor borer

Potash, also termed sylvanite, mainly consists of intermixed halite (rock salt) and sylvite (potash) crystals. There are also minor amounts of insolubles (clays) and sometimes carnallite (a magnesium salt).  Sylvite (KCl) is the pay dirt, salt is the gangue mineral.
The production rooms being mined were about 75 ft. wide and 5,000 ft. long.  That is quite a large span, not likely possible in many other rock types other than salt rock.  Overall, the mine would extract about 40-45% of the potash, leaving behind the rest in the form of large pillars to support the overlying rock mass.

2-rotor borer

The mines use continuous miners or borers. In the 80’s they were Marietta miners and now they use borers from Prairie Machine (read more here).   When I was there they were starting to transition from two-rotor to four rotor machines.   The small machines would carve out ~350 tph, and the large ones could do over ~700 tph.
All borers are directly connected to the massive underground conveyor network that moves the ore from the cutter head to the shaft in a continuous process.
Mining excavates an 8 ft. high room consisting of three layers of interest.  A 4.3 ft. layer of high grade ore, a 1.7 ft. layer of low grade ore, and a 2.5 ft. layer of moderate grade potash.  This adds up to 8.5 ft., so the miners try to take the best 8 feet.  The best head grade would be delivered if the borer cut exactly to the top of the high grade 4.3 ft. seam. One didn’t want to overcut into overlying salt or undercut and leave high grade behind in the roof.  I’ll have more on how grade control was done in Part 2.
The air temperature underground is about 25C, so it’s quite a pleasant short sleeve climate.  Around the cutting face, the electric motors, and cutter head, temps can reach into the high 30 degree range. Hot but better than freezing. The mine was dry with very low humidity.   Hence metal didn’t rust.  However, bring the metal to surface and it would rust in no time.
Potash is termed a plastic rock, in that it will deform slowly under stress.  Hard rock will build up stresses and erupt violently in a “rock burst”.  Potash will go with the flow and deform.  Pillars will compress vertically and expand horizontally.  Room heights can decrease over time as much as 6 inches over several weeks in higher stress areas.
Interestingly when the borer shut down and all was quiet, one could walk to the freshly cut face.   You could hear the potash walls gently crackling like rice krispies, as the potash expanded into the opening.  After all, a few moments earlier the potash was being laterally confined under a vertical stress of 3,000 psi. That confinement is suddenly gone.
Roof closure was always an issue.  In panels that were almost mined out, all the ground stress was being carried by the unmined ground.  When advancing into this ground, roof closure could be so rapid that once a borer finished a 4 to 6 week room, the miner operator would need to cut a few inches off  the roof to get back to the front of the room.  It took a couple of days to get the borer out, rather than during a regular shift.
In very high stress areas you could see the floor heaving up as pillars were compressing laterally. That’s when you really knew that mining panel was done and operations should relocate to a new area.
I recall inspecting some of the very old workings from 20 years past.  The rooms looked like new except the roof had compressed down to 5 ft. in height.   We’d have to drive leaning sideways out of the jeep because the steering wheel was literally scraping the roof.

Flooded Russian Potash Mine

The biggest fear in potash mining is water inflow and mine flooding. There can be a water bearing layer about 50-70 feet above the mining level.  A layer of salt rock separates the two.  If you have groundwater flowing through a dissolvable material, it’s no surprise that the pathway will keep getting larger and larger. That’s why any sign of water seepage is taken seriously and causes the engineering team to leap into action (more on that in Part 2).
At least one potash mine in Saskatchewan has flooded.  A couple of others have come close but have managed to deal with the water inflows.
Barren areas where the sylvite has been leached away and replaced with pure halite are called salt horses.   I never knew why and still don’t.
Exploration core holes could be a mile apart so salt horses would be encountered unexpectedly.  They could be 20 or 2,000 feet in size; you never knew which.   They were a nuisance and an economic penalty.  If you tried to tunnel through them, you would send a lot of uneconomic salt up the shaft to the mill (which they did not like). Conversely, pulling out and abandoning a room was a painful decision because it took that borer off line for a couple of days to relocate. It’s an unplanned outage, which is not good if another borer happens to be moving at the same time.
On occasion, a borer would abandon the room and move to the next room 50 feet away and could pass by the same area without seeing the salt horse.  Upon reflection, perhaps we should have persevered in the previous room and gone another 20 ft. and we might have been through it.  Often the mill manager hollering about the mill getting too much salt was a deciding factor in whether to abandon a room or keep cutting.
For a year or so,  I also worked as a production foreman.  It was an interesting role. How does a young mining engineer four years out of school tell  guys working underground for 20 years what they need to do?
This also leads to the time when I wrecked a Toyota Land Cruiser underground.   I’ll leave that account to Part 2.  I’ve rambled long enough for today.
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Potash Ore Grades – Check the Units

KCl vs K2O
Having worked with the potash industry for many years, I have reviewed numerous geological reports for projects in Canada, Asia, Russia, and Africa.  One of the curious things that I have seen is the reporting of resource  grades in two different units; either as potassium oxide (K2O) or potassium chloride (KCl).

Is it K2O or KCl ?

Standard practice in the Saskatchewan industry is reporting ore grades using K2O units, with typical head grades in the range of 25% K2O.  Many of the international projects, but not all, have decided to use the KCl units. Therefore when comparing potash resource grades between deposits, one must be vigilant for the units used since there is a significant difference.
The conversion from K2O to KCl is based on the formula K2O = 0.6317 x KCl.   So a grade of 25% K20 is equal to 25/0.6317 = 39.6% KCl.  The KCl grade value is significantly higher.  The unit issue is relevant with low grade deposits, were an actual grade of 15% K2O may be reported as 23.7% KCl.  One might see the ore grade in KCl and assume it is comparable to Saskatchewan potash grades, when in reality they are quite different.

Concentration Ratio is the Key

When looking at different potash projects, particularly those involving underground mining, a key economic factor is the concentration ratio.  This ratio represents the tonnes of potash ore needed to produce a tonne of final saleable product.
Typically the final potash product has a grade of 60% K2O.  Therefore a potash ore with a grade of 25% K2O would have a concentration ratio of about 2.4:1 (60%/25%).  This means that 2.4 tonnes of potash must be processed to produce 1 tonne of product (ignoring the process recovery factor).   For a lower grade ore with a head grade of say 15% K2O, the concentration ratio is 4:1 (60%/15%).

potash mining

This gives a rough sense for the comparable operation size required to meet the same final product production levels.  This also gives a indication for the relative amounts of salt tailings requiring disposal.  Low grade ore can generate significant quantities of tailings, the disposal of which is becoming a larger permitting issue.
In the past gold grades have been reported as “oz/ton” or currently as “g/t”, but most geological reports today are consistent with “g/t”.  Sometimes US based gold projects may use “oz/ton” however the difference in reported grade are fairly obvious between grams and ounces.  That is not the case with potash grades.
The bottom line is that potash is one commodity that will use different units when reporting ore grades.  Investors and reviewer must be aware of which unit are being used.
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