The numbers are impressive.
Since opening in 1977, nearly 2.2 billion tons of coal have been mined at Black Thunder and delivered to power America’s electric generation plants.
Huge draglines, the largest machines operating at the mine, remove most of the rock and clay overburden that lies above coal seams with an average thickness of 77 feet. Of the six draglines located at the mine, two are among the largest in the world. One of these weighs 14.7 million pounds, is 238 feet tall, has a boom stretching 360 feet and swings a bucket that can carry up to 164 cubic yards of material in one pass.
Twenty-two massive shovels that can carry up to 120 tons in a single bucket load the material into the haul trucks.
Operating at the mine are 123 haul trucks, each measuring roughly 48-feet long and powered by a 3,000 hp diesel engine running on 10-foot tall tires. A single truckload of coal can provide enough energy to heat an average home for more than 40 years.
With such a huge equipment fleet, keeping the machines supplied with fuel and lubricants and electrical power in a safe and efficient manner is a constant effort.
That’s where the dependable fleet of Ground Force fuel/lube and cable reel trucks come in.
The fuel/lube trucks were chosen because they offer lube and fuel in one complete package versus separate trucks for lube, fuel and other fluids. This dramatically reduces operating costs with fewer vehicles and operators.
To keep up with demand, the mine operates five Ground Force fuel/lube trucks, including a 773, 777 and three 789s. The larger 789s carry as much as 70,000 gallons of diesel fuel each to refuel haul trucks, dozers, excavators, wheel dozers, motor graders and other massive mining equipment.
“We’ve got Cat® dozers that operate in remote areas of this mine, and the only way to get to them is by the narrow trails the dozer makes,” says Colter Burleson, Predictive Services Supervisor at Black Thunder mine. “These 777 haul trucks can handle rough terrain, steep grades and can travel on narrow roads and into tight places that other pieces of equipment would not normally be able to get to.”
“The operators enjoy having everything in one shot—grease, fuel, antifreeze— it’s all right there,” says Burleson. “The Ground Force trucks get around better than a smaller unit or a single-serve unit would. And the operators feel more comfortable driving on narrow roads or steep grades because they know their truck can handle it.”
Black Thunder was recognized by the State Mine Inspector as the safest large surface mine in Wyoming for 2015.
Working safely is a guiding principle at Black Thunder mine, and at Arch Coal operations across the country. With this core value in mind, the complex employs technology and leverages equipment to further its ultimate safety goal of operating with zero safety incidents each year.
“When there’s fueling/lubing going on, there’s a lot of movement and all equipment at the mine is huge. So the fewer people on the ground, the safer it is,” Burleson says.
“The design of the Ground Force fuel/lube body enables us keep one operator on the ground while servicing machines and thereby avoid going up and down steps on the machine in the wintertime,” he says. “That’s pretty crucial because you’ve got slips, trips and falls to worry about with snow and ice, so the less you have to climb up and down on everything, the better.
“The operator can access everything he needs right from ground level, whether it’s the computer to start the flow of fluids, all the hoses, and/or all the pumps. He has all of his controls right at his fingertips, so when he pulls the hoses out and hooks them up to the vehicles he can walk right back to the back of the lube truck, turn everything on and stay in a safe position while it’s fueling and lubing and keep himself out of harm’s way,” Burleson says.
The Role of Cable Reel Trucks
The many draglines and mining shovels are electrically powered through long, heavy-duty electrical cables. But the natural mining environment, coupled with weather extremes of hot and cold temperatures in Wyoming high country, can wear these cables out quickly, requiring their frequent replacement. In most cases, the long, heavy cables could be awkward and difficult to replace.
However, the task is made fast and simple by using highly efficient and maneuverable Ground Force Cable Reel Trucks (CRTs) that combine a Ground Force cable reel system with specially modified Cat 740B Articulated Truck.
“I don’t know the number or the miles of cable we have, but we have a lot of it and we move a lot every day. My best day ever on the CRT, I did 17,000 feet of cable in one day,” says operator Dave Slattery.
Designed for cost-efficient, one-person, in-cab operation, the cable reel trucks enable precise cable placement with the GF740B’s articulation, rotating reel turntable and rear-view cameras. The Cat engine, power train and six-wheel drive deliver reliable power, traction and maneuverability in the varying underfoot conditions and long grades encountered in the mine.
“The Ground Force CRT is more efficient as far as the laying out of the cable, keeping ahead of the shovels,” Slattery says. “It has good power on the cable drum and it’s smooth operating. I’ve been running them for a number of years and these new units are more advanced as far as the controls and on-board computers—and that has really helped out a lot for reeling the cable in and laying it out.
“The articulation of the machine is helpful when you turn and you’re laying out a cable so that you can see what you’re doing around the corner,” he continues. “It’ll swing the cab over to where you can see the cable better. As far as the hydraulic power and traction, there’s no comparison to our former units. This one’s way stronger.”
Caterpillar OEM Solutions works closely with Ground Force and local Cat dealer Wyoming Machinery to design and support the entire fleet of Ground Force trucks working in the Black Thunder mine.
Cat equipment in the mine employs on-board Cat technology. The Cat MineStar™ system is widely used throughout the mine to enhance safety, reduce costs, improve productivity and boost efficiency. Cat MineStar helps manage everything from material tracking to sophisticated real-time fleet management, machine health systems, autonomous equipment systems and more.
“Technology plays a huge role on our Ground Force trucks,” Burleson says. “They are tracked by MineStar, as are all the trucks in the mine, and go through a dispatcher who knows where every vehicle is at all times. And when it comes to the fuel/lube trucks, every type and amount of fluid dispensed is monitored.”
Ground Force fuel/lube trucks and CRTs deliver proven, reliable 24/7/365 support for the gigantic equipment fleet at Black Thunder, where temperatures can range from a frigid 30° F below zero in deep winter, to a scorching 120° F in the blazing heat of summer.
Availability of the Ground Force units is right around 90 percent.
“If somebody asked about the operation of our Ground Force fuel/lube trucks, I’d have to tell them that they’re reliable trucks,” Burleson says. “They deliver everything in one shot, they’ve increased the safety of the fuel/lube truck operators and they help get things fueled and lubed a lot quicker.”
“I’ve worked with Caterpillar and Wyoming Machinery ever since I was hired here,” he continues, “and as far as working with the OEM it’s been a good experience. They provide great service. The parts availability is wonderful. If we need parts they have them there. If they don’t have them there, they’ve got them available somewhere close for us in a very timely manner.
“As far as service and the technician support, the Wyoming Machinery technicians are always there for the equipment, Burleson says. “They know what’s best on the equipment and they know what’s best for the customer.”
Many of the Cat machines in the mine are also covered by a Cat Maintenance and Repair Contract utilizing the product support expertise of Wyoming Machinery to help ensure maximum uptime for the equipment fleet at Black Thunder.
In addition, the large percentage of Cat components contained in the Ground Force trucks ensures parts and service availability.
“These Ground Force trucks are pretty easy to maintain because they contain a lot of the same parts as our haul trucks,” Burleson says.”
“Our relationship with our local Cat dealer, Wyoming Machinery, is very close,” he says. “It’s important for us to have that relationship because we’ve got a vast number of machines. So to be able to tackle any of the issues that could arise with so many pieces of equipment, you need help and support. And we get that support on a daily basis. During every shift we’ve got people here from Wyoming Machinery to help support this operation.”