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Underground Mines: Mind-Twisting Future of Diamond Industry

18 may 2009

ALROSA’s going underground will be inevitably accompanied by a host of problems – operating, economic and social. The necessity to construct underground mines in Yakutia was recognized by experts more than two decades back and major project decisions were also taken quite a long time ago, while the mining science was not idle all this time. Professional discussion focused on diamond mines construction was permanently under way, but unfortunately it was rarely an object of regard for the expert community studying the diamond market. Lev Puchkov, President of the Moscow State Mining University, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Doctor of Engineering and one of Russia’s leading experts in the field of underground systems, offers his own point of view for this problem.

Underground mines are the major prospect for ALROSA as a mining company. How tidy are their projects and do they comply with the current requirements of the mining science?

ALROSA is facing serious methodological problems in design and construction of underground mines, the major of which is the absence of a system concept in design. The company boasts of scores of contractors but there is no one around to merge their blueprints into an integral system, since the NIPROALMAZ Design Institute has neither appropriate capacity, nor personnel to do this job. A single prime contractor would be much more efficient in design having the ability to rake together all the solutions into one powerful system already at the design-making stage and get an optimal result. But when a large-scale project is solved saying “let’s sink a pit and then see what comes next,” this will inevitably result in an unreasonably expensive and ill-balanced underground architecture generating painful surprises during the whole period of operation. In my opinion, currently there are no sound high-performance underground projects for the diamond pipes in Yakutia. What’s more, all the mines now under construction there are notorious for their utterly low level of mining work safety. Some time ago, Vyacheslav Shtyrov chaired the discussion of these problems and I said then: “We shall not be surprised if tomorrow we’ll get news of major accidents at the Internatsionalny Mine and other future mines. Dangerous mines being built now will turn into a future super-problem.”

Could you give some examples of dangerous design solutions for underground diamond mines?

The Internatsionalny Mine was based on the so-called central dual system of development having two central shafts. This system has long been out of practice – for instance, in the Donbass coal-mining area it was cancelled as early as the 70s of the past century. It was done because people working there used to be killed in accidents by hundreds – in case of fire in a shaft inset both shafts were closed trapping people in a “sack.” I tried to convince V. Shtyrov and then V. Kalitin that a flank system of developing shafts was desirable: one central shaft near the diamond pipe and one or better two shafts on its flanks. It’s a trifle given modern techniques of developing shafts and it will not cost even four million dollars, but this will solve all the problems related to safety and will keep you undisturbed during the whole period of mining works. Nevertheless, the most dangerous pattern was employed.

There was an exhausting discussion around the crown ceiling to protect the Mir Mine from the water-bearing bed. We were arguing that no crown ceiling should be left. In the first place, it was to take some part of the ore body “freezing” from $3.0 to $3.5 billion worth of diamonds. Secondly, it is very dangerous to work on such an area under a ceiling allegedly protecting you when the quarry has already been worked out 500 meters deep because this ceiling may one day subside crushing down all the mining works together with everything there is in the pits. There is one example – in 2000 in Austria such a ceiling slid down into the gypsum mine with a similar underground architecture, so the whole Europe went in to rescue the miners devising unique technical solutions and in one case driving a borehole 400 meters deep to save a miner! Accidents involving ceiling deformations and collapses were quite often and they resulted in losing entire mines. Well, if you want to work under a ceiling, sink your shafts deeper and undercutting the diamond pipe go upwards till your reach the quarry – then enter the quarry losing virtually nothing at the final stage of mining. But going down from under the ceiling and putting backfilling above is a very dangerous pattern and this danger will increase in time. Of course, if you make a pure-cement backfilling merging it somehow with underground rock it will stick in place, though in Yakutia, locally, there is no decent stuff to produce backfilling and if you bring it along including cement and other things you won’t need any diamonds – underground mining will yield no profit. Despite this it has been decided to develop the Mir Mine using backfilling and going down from under the ceiling.

What kind of outlook could you give for the Undachny Underground Mine?

The Undachny Mine has missed the point to stop its open works. The diamond pipe there is not as deep as that of the Mir Mine and going underground for the sake of this small fry is totally void of sense. It is a wittingly unviable project.

If we compare the underground projects pursued by ALROSA and De Beers – what is their principle difference?

 Diamond mining in Yakutia started and continued for a long time as open-cut works. Quarries were joyfully driven into the diamond pipes without anyone giving any thought about the future. So, by the time it dawned that it was necessary to switch over to underground mining the quarries had reached critical depth where mining and geological conditions were far from being the most favorable. And all this despite that from the very start the diamond pipes were logged to great depths – the Mir Diamond Pipe, for instance, was probed to a depth of 1800 meters. By contrast, De Beers managed to give a timely start to designing underground mines and it was based on a system-defined pattern, which was the main point about it. Their pipes have leaner diamond content making any design errors more critical for efficiency. If Yakutia’s pipes had the same diamond content and quality as those of De Beers, ALROSA would have turned inefficient a long time ago. De Beers managed to produce tidy projects and now while mining underground they enjoy lower diamond costs than ALROSA in open-cut mining.

Probably, the climate factor plays here a certain role?

Climate has nothing to do with this. If the underground system were designed in a right way there would be a good result at the Mir Diamond Pipe as well: its underground costs could be near its open-pit costs lately obtained at the quarry. In 2000, we tackled an underground mine design for the Mir Pipe and managed to make a project which would allow starting efficient underground operation as early as 2006. The design was demonstrated to the experts of De Beers and caused their obvious anxiety. Unfortunately, our project was not implemented as a system, though some of its solutions were used as fragments. However, currently there is no really good and solid project for the Mir Pipe.

Despite the drawbacks in design, sooner or later ALROSA will switch over to underground mining. The experience of De Beers proves that such a transition is accompanied by drastic personnel cuts. What fate is in store for the diamond mining cities of Yakutia?

During the last two decades the number of miners in the world sharply reduced. Only Russia witnessed the disappearance of 700,000 miners. Nevertheless, the number of miners still working underground may be further cut down three times. What is currently going on in mining is not just automation, but super-automation. One worker can reach the same level of labor efficiency as one hundred miners just 20 years ago. Examining the perspective of developing northern deposits, including diamond fields, we should proceed only from a rotational team method. We shall need mobile and very well trained teams of miners including both engineers and workers – a kind of “mining task force.” And engineers will make major labor contribution – a robot-aided mining facility is able to produce 10,000 tons of ore per day, but to control and service such equipment you will need qualified engineers. Ore-dressing mills are also being automated and their modern types need far less people than in the past. The situation in the mining business is similar to that existing in agriculture – 4% of able-bodied population basically may procure food stuffs for the rest 96% due to a high level of labor efficiency. This is why many people in Mirny, Udachny and Aikhal will soon have nothing to do there. The fate of these cities is doomed, and while people there live difficult and expensive existence, they have to move more south instead. But this is not a mining problem.

Underground mining requires a different list of specialists compared with open-cut mining. What part of the personnel may be re-trained and stay?

If re-training is well organized, about 60% of the personnel may be re-qualified for underground operation. Both techniques are identical to a great extent - intersecting, as the American say, - so there are no great problems to have people re-trained. Our university, for example, has extensive experience in re-training the ALROSA engineering personnel for underground operation. The problem is not in re-training difficulties and the necessity to lay off people for vocational disablement. The problem is that less people are needed and this is an objective reality.

Sergey Goryainov, Rough&Polished, Moscow