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How tough has coal mining become?

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Kangra’s consistent quality of coal and secure production make it highly a sought-after supplier to key markets. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

How tough has coal mining become? 

WhyAfrica took a drive to Kangra Coal’s mining operation in the Mkhondo Municipality of Mpumalanga, South Africa, recently to find out just how tough coal mining has become. 

By Leon Louw owner of WhyAfrica and editor of the WhyAfrica magazine.   

To be a coal miner in South Africa has never been easy. Even when it was perceived to be all plain sailing, developing, and keeping a coal mine running was not meant for the faint hearted.

However, not even 10 years ago, when the world still craved fossil fuels and coal was king, and funders fell over their feet to bankroll any hole in the ground that appeared to have coal in the bottom, life for coal miners might arguably have been slightly easier than what it is today.

Those were the days when investors cared more about profit margins and the bottom line than Environmental and Social Governance (ESG), and when South African coal exporters had cheap and consistent electricity supply and could get their products to international markets through world-class rail and port infrastructure in double quick time.

But the world has changed, and coal mining companies around the globe are under increasing pressure from all quarters. There are a handful of coal mining stalwarts in South Africa that continue to defy the odds though.

To operate a coal mine in this type of business and political environment is tough enough, but to develop and expand current operations, while continuously keeping an eye on the geopolitical, environmental, and social risks, is an exceptional feat.

Significant progress at Kangra (How tough has coal mining become?)

This is exactly what Kangra Coal, located about 45km from the town of Mkhondo in Mpumalanga, had to do to build another top-class operation from scratch. Development at Kangra accelerated over the last year, and there has been significant progress since WhyAfrica last got our boots dirty in June 2023.

Mining at Kangra is extremely tough. The geology is complex, its deposits are scattered, and the mine is in an environmentally sensitive area. Moreover, the local community is vocal and, at times, radical.

The mine was founded by Graham Beck in 1957 and Kangra acquired the mining rights for the Savmore/Maquasa reserve in 1995. They continued mining Maquasa whilst acquiring new licences for the adjacent Kusipongo reserves.

Throughout the course of 2023, Kangra successfully planned, developed, and ramped up two new mining areas as a natural extension of the current mine workings.

The two adits (Belgarthen and Udumo) were developed to access the Kusipongo underground reserve that has an estimate resource of 41.9 million tons (Mt) and an anticipated Life of Mine (LoM) of more than 20 years.

The Belgarthen A adit is located about 25 km south-west of Udumo.  Its development started around the third quarter of 2022 as planned and production has steadily been ramping up.

“With Belgarthen now operating, Kangra can confidently pursue a 1.44 million tons per annum production rate.  Collectively Udumo and Belgarthen produced a record 135 287-ton Run-of-Mine (RoM) in August,” says Pierre Louw, General Manager at Kangra.

“Further Developing the Kusipongo reserve could extend the life of mine significantly, which will enable Kangra to continue supporting the local communities for at least another 20 years,” adds Louw.

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Kangra’s impact on communities (How tough has coal mining become?)

Louw explains that the environmental and social impacts of developing the new portals were not as substantial as when the main pit at Kangra was first developed. “Belgarthen A adit was already an established portal and because the adit is situated in a remote agricultural area, there were no communities close to the main works,” says Louw.

He adds that the project will create an estimated 100 direct and indirect jobs and, in the process, open opportunities for local procurement, skills development (learnerships and cadets), bursaries and Mine Community Development Projects (LED projects).

“The extension of the life of mine through Kusipungo means that the community will continue to benefit from opportunities created through Kangra for a longer period. This is also a sustainable upliftment as the life of mine could be more than 20 years. With several bursary and internship programs, we also hope to upskill the local community.”

Port under pressure (How tough has coal mining become?)

About 90% of Kangra’s coal is exported through Richards Bay Coal Terminal in KwaZulu-Natal for use by international power producers. At the time of writing, Richards Bay was dangerously close to collapse as Transnet disintegrated along with critical rail infrastructure in the country.

“The optimal functioning of Transnet and the Richards Bay Port is pivotal for our operation,” says Louw.

“Kangra’s consistent quality and secure production make it highly a sought-after supplier to key markets. Kangra’s location, being close to Richards Bay, positions it well for both exports and to service the local South African markets. With a mixture of both low and high volatility coal, the Kusipongo reserve will be mined from three sections using a board and pillar method,” Louw explains.

Once mined from the various adits, the coal is trucked/conveyed to the Maquasa East adit. From here, it is washed and trucked to the Panbult Rail Siding, which is about 30km from the mine where it will be railed to the Richards Bay Coal Terminal. Where Transnet is not able to supply trains on time, the mine moves product by trucking it to the port.

Water management at Kangra (How tough has coal mining become?)

There is a perception in South Africa that coal mines have an adverse impact on the water resources of Mpumalanga, and that these operations are often unregulated. So how does Kangra deal with water issues and what is the mines impact on the water resources in the area?       

“Kangra applied for an Integrated Water Use Licence (WUL) at Belgarthen early in 2020. The WUL, which was granted in October 2021, comes with very strict legal requirements that employees and contractors are contractually and legally bound to always follow,” says Louw.

To obtain the WUL, a plethora of studies must be conducted by various experts. This relates to underground and surface water as well as impacts on wetlands to name but a few.

The studies record the possible impact and make certain recommendations in the form of mitigation measures. The measures are there to ensure that the impact, if any, is mitigated to within acceptable levels as set out by legislation. These mitigation measures are then taken up in the WUL as conditions that must be adhered to.

For example, Kangra uses a closed water reticulation system, which ensures that no contaminated water is released from the site, and instead is channeled and collected in pollution control dams (PCDs).

This water is recycled for dust suppression within the mine’s boundary and in the processing plant. In addition, the limited water that is contaminated is to be treated at a water treatment plant.

The plant will be constructed as soon as all relevant licenses are approved. “Kangra has a comprehensive water stewardship programme in place which aims at ensuring efficient water use through the avoidance of water wastage, such as monitoring tap and pipe leaks, for instance, which can waste many liters of water unnecessarily,” says Louw.

Environmental authorisation for extensions (How tough has coal mining become?)

Belgarthen A shaft was strategically planned to be mined through one section to ensure Kangra can produce at the required levels to make it profitable under challenging market conditions. Later in the life-of-mine, the shaft will provide access to the T4 project which will be the extension to the current mining right.

Like a WUL, Environmental Authorisations (EA) are required before these projects can go ahead. An EA entails specialists conducting studies to identify potential impacts and suggest mitigation measures.

Like a WUL it comes with conditions that mainly include the proposed mitigation to limit the environmental impacts.

According to Louw the area fenced off on the surface at Udumo is about twenty-two hectares and at Belgarthen A Adit about forty two hectares.

“Impact is minimised by utilising the existing infrastructure for washing operations. There was some clearing of natural vegetation and run off water that needed to be contained. In addition, all relevant guidelines and permissions were complied with in the opening of the adits to ensure minimal impact on the receiving environment,” says Louw.

He adds that Kangra appointed an independent science specialist to complete the applications for the EA and WUL.

“The application process entails assessments which allow us to predict potential social and environmental impacts. This allows us to develop suitable mitigation measures, which are documented in the Environmental Impact Assessment Report.

“As part of the EA and WUL there is a full rehabilitation plan drawn up to ensure that rehabilitation is conducted at the end of the life of the mine. We also have an environmental department that constantly monitors our compliance internally and we also report to the relevant departments quarterly to ensure compliance. A part of the reporting conducted is shared with the relevant authorities,” he says.

Despite the many challenges of mining coal today, especially in South Africa, Kangra has overcome most obstacles and continues to be a significant contributor to South Africa’s economy and continues to provide local communities in the region with employment opportunities.

How tough has coal mining become?

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How tough has coal mining become?

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