Day 7, August 11, 2016
Our first activity of the day was to tour the Eagle Butte coal mine. The mine is an open pit/surface mining project and the mine is a small to medium sized mine in Gillette, Wyoming. The Eagle Butte mine employs slightly less than 200 employees.
The tour we went on was a partnership between the mine and the tourism bureau – it was $5 per person and we met at the Visitor’s Center. We got on the bus with our guide, a local teacher who was off for the summer, and had previously worked some summers at the mine, and drove out to the site. On the way out, we saw land that had previously been mined.
The company basically removes the top 24″ of dirt from a section where they are mining, and they pile it off to the side (they cover up the piles to prevent the topsoil from blowing away). Then they dig out all the dirt below to find the coal seam, extract the coal and then put the dirt back on top. The coal seam in this area is about 120 feet thick, so when the dirt is put back after a section has been mined, the land is about 120 feet lower. Regulations require that the land must be replanted with native grasses and shrubs, and to be honest, I couldn’t tell that the areas that had already been mined had ever been disturbed. The only reason we knew was because our guide told us as were were driving by. There were pronghorn out grazing on those areas of land.
The tour showed us the pit, with trucks and equipment that looked pretty small from far away but are actually huge. The truck tires are 12 feet tall! You can only tell how large they are when looking at the trucks next to normal sized pickups; otherwise it is hard to tell when you are watching them from far away as you have nothing to compare to for scale.
Our tour stopped at an area where we could stand in a bucket for an excavator and next to one of the big equipment tires. The bucket there is actually a very small one, holding only 23 yeards of dirt. The smallest bucket the mine now uses holds 52 yards, but typically they use 70-90 yard buckets. I suppose they no longer have much use for the 23 yard bucket that was on display! But it seemed pretty big to me.
Then we headed over to the area where the coal is loaded onto trains. Our guide explained the loading process, and the shape of the coal on the coal car – it is very specifically shaped to limit blow-off of coal dust. She also explained that the company sprays sealant on the coal, depending on where the coal is being shipped. Our guide asserted that that sealant basically does nothing, because the coal does not blow off train cars, but they put the sealant on in order to make people feel better. You, dear readers, can debate that last point amongst yourselves; I wasn’t quite sure what to believe. Depending on where the train is going – each train has between 110 and 140 cars.
I know a coal mine tour isn’t going to be on everybody’s bucket list (see that pun I did there…?), and I wasn’t sure how much I would get out of it to be honest. But all in all, I did find it to be really interesting. Living in the Pacific Northwest, where there is a lot of anti-coal sentiment, it was good to get another perspective. I thought it was well worth the price and a couple of hours of time.
If you are interested, you can find more information about it here – they only do it during the summer.