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Solntsevsky coal mine for 30 years

The East Mining Company Limited is the largest enterprise in a coal branch of Sakhalin Region. The EMCO Ltd. develops several coal deposits, the largest of which is the Solntsevskoe coal deposit. The lion's share of all solid fuel in island area is procured here. Through the mining port the coal from this opencast coal mine is being delivered to the Asian-Oceanian countries. Mr. Igor Kovach, the Director of the Solntsevskiy opencast coal mine, told us about the history of the Solntsevskiy opencast coal mine, its nowadays and short-term plans.

- Igor Alexandrovich, you are at the head of business for some time now. How the operations at the opencast coal mine have been changed during its 30 years history?

- The history of the Solntsevskiy opencast coal mine is not so long. Actually, as from the beginning of large-scale mining by surface mining until today the history met the deadline of one generation, i.e. 30 years. Though, the search for coal was initiated here by the Russian pathfinders in the midst of the century before last. But the Japanese proceeded to the first development projects. To be honest, they used the shaft method for coal mining.

Only the Soviet geologists could determine the more precise volumes of coal deposits and its qualitative characteristics. Particularly they could prove that the coal deposit includes 18 coal banks, with the thickness being equal to almost 16 meters. In such event, these coals are low and mid-ash coals. And what is by no means unimportant they underlay under the conditions being favourable for open-pit workings. And this reduces all production expenditures.

Originally, the volumes of withdrawable coal were small. For the period starting from 1987 through 2003 only 4,4 million tons were mined. Too many factors had a serious effect, the main of which is the lack of capital contributions. At that point in time, the Solntsevskoe coal deposit sparked the interest of the Ministry of Coal Industry of the country, but it did not get the financing.

The principal financial injections at that date were already made in Yakutsk and Krasnoyarsk coal complexes. In such a way, the tuning of operation of our opencast coal mine required only our own forces.

In the early eighties, the exploitation of the southern zone had been commenced. With the "Uglegorskaya" coal pit the plot was established, whereto all available equipment had been taken bit by bit. The major problems appeared with respect to skilled personnel. But it must be said that nowadays this situation has not been varied by a negligible margin. Now it is necessary to search for expert personnel throughout the country. In the meantime, they came through otherwise. The team was organized by the aid of the staff that was out of a job in other branches. In the first instance, in agricultural sector and construction.

However, a short time later something similar occurred in a coal branch. The people did not receive their salary for months. At the Solntsevskiy opencast coal mine the late payment of wages were even 5 months.

The situation began drastically change as from 2011. At the opencast coal mine they proceeded on a phased basis to upgrading of manufacturing facilities. The emerging technologies began to be used. For the first time ever the BelAZes (heavy goods vehicles manufactured by Belarusian Autoworks), with the carrying capacity being equal to 130 tons, began loaded. Next year the Liebherr excavators were purchased (bucket capacity 15 m3). Later the up to date excavators, dumping trucks, earth-movers and lift trucks Komatsu were used.

In 2016 the Management of the EMCO Ltd adopted the decision to invest funds in progressive, highly-productive mining and conveyor equipment without parallel in Sakhalin. So, at the Solntsevskiy opencast coal mine the giants BelAZes appeared with the carrying capacity being equal to 220 tons, and the excavators Komatsu and Hitachi with the bucket capacity 23 m3. The coal production volume was 4 million tons in 2016. About that much the enterprise extracted in the last century during 10-15 years. But here we can speak about only one year.

- Please, tell us about the development of the opencast coal mine since the appearance of the East Mining Company Limited.

- How the enterprise could be developed when the company, which owns our opencast coal mine, was chaired by ambitious professionals who put emphasis on the industrial efficiency. Positively, by all means. The economic figures increase year on year. For this purpose, as I noted before, the state-of-the-art equipment is being purchased. Despite harsh conditions, the experts operate in comfortable conditions. All requirements are being complied with, which requirements are specified towards the working environment at our manufacturing plant. And this is good for process performances. Let's say, if in the year of the EMCO Ltd appearance we sold 1,2 million tons of coal annually, then in 2016 this figure has been increased threefold. The list could go on.

            - The production volumes increased significantly. Moreover, it took place in short order. What do you think at the expense of what such bounce could be made?

            - The industrial growth is possible by reason of many factors. Let us begin with the human factor. For instance, in 2005 only 242 employees worked at the opencast coal mine. Nowadays, at the Solntsevskiy opencast coal mine we have as many as 800 people. The technical staff increased by more than three times. Besides, we give attention not only to the quantitative index in that matter, but to a greater degree we give attention to qualitative index.

            I've already told that we are searching for the staff throughout Russia at face value. It is connected, primarily, with the fact that the up-to-date equipment is being used at our opencast coal mine, which could not be taken occasionally not only in the region but at the enterprises of the Far East. One should have specific knowledge in order to operate such equipment. In 2017, two 220 tons BelAZes shall be additionally received at the opencast coal mine and yet another excavator with the bucket of 23 m3. Consequently, the company establishes conditions according to a plan for more increase of coal production volumes. But then, we are trying to involve neighbouring residents for work at the opencast coal mine: to train local employees, and to boost the level of their qualification.

            We have employees from Shakhtersk and Uglegorsk. There is an arrangement with the mining secondary school in Shakhtersk with respect to training of specialists. But nowadays we have serious issues in respect of education.

            Too many things have been lost for 20 years, but we do hope that with the assistance of the relevant authorities that issue will be resolved. Now, the students graduate higher education establishments or arrive at practical training. They do have nothing, neither the "wallpaper degree" nor the skills. We may accept them for the most low-key posts only, which do not attract them at all because it is very difficult to earn good money there. Unfortunately, academic programs go behind the development of the branch, and our educational system needs at least three years to vary the program.

            - What perspectives does the Solntsevskiy opencast coal mine have?

            - The most glowing. Not long ago (correctly on the 1st of July) the territory of Uglegorsk district was covered by Vladivostok free port regime. This will provide with the opportunity to begin the construction of a new port in Shakhtersk, which will be capable of loading the ships according to the rather different schedule. At present, the coal is being delivered to the port in dumping trucks, then it is being stored there and after is being shipped to vehicles.

            But, considering the fact that the demands of Sakhalin for solid fuel are completely satisfied now, the company will receive the opportunity to export yet more coal. I'd like to recall that the buyers from Japan, China, South Korea, Philippines, Taiwan and India ship the initial product through the port of Shakhtersk exactly.

            For this reason, the decision was taken to build the conveyor from the opencast coal mine to the port and to load marine vessels directly from the conveyor. It is an analogue of the gas pipeline which operates in Sakhalin connecting the deposits in the north of the island with the loading terminal in the south. But to be honest, the coal pipeline will be shorter. Its length will be just 28 km. However, we do not have anything of the sort in Russia. There were some attempts to build something similar in Kuzbass, at Bachatskiy and Taldinskiy opencast coal mines. But the technologies did not strike roots there due to Siberian climatic conditions. In Sakhalin the climate is softer for all that.

Upon putting into operation of the Sakhalin GRES-2 the Solntsevskiy opencast coal mine will take electric power generated from its own coal.

- To what extent nowadays the profession of mineworker is popular?

- Unfortunately, over the past few decades the profession lost its prestige. The decline fell to the long post-Soviet period when many experts retired from the branch. It was connected, primarily, with the late payment of wages, deteriorating conditions of production and etc.

But nowadays the ancient glory of coalminers is regenerated gradually, in particular, by the aid of such large enterprises as our enterprise. The youth with ever increasing frequency directs their eyes at mining occupations. Yes, here we can not talk about easy job, but here we have stability, long shillings and above all – the longstanding perspectives.

If we dip into the history of mining works then we will know that formerly it was the military institution with the uniform, ranks and honourable distinctions. But the things which were forgotten in the nineties are regenerating now gradually. Many people put on their uniform overcoats on the occasion of Miner's Day and on demonstrations. In course of time, I think, the ancient glory will resume in favour of this profession.

— We used to have our best performers, they were honored, and their names were known nationwide...

— I am sure that the history develops in a spiral. The increased attention to the miners will come back. Now we make efforts to increase the efficiency of labor in our production. And we have our own leaders. For example, this year the team of A. Astakhov, S. Kobzarev and Zimin brothers distinguished themselves by the maximum development of rock mass. They were able to ship 672 thousand cubic meters. The team of BelAZ drivers of E. Ardyshev, D. Kretinin and D. Soldatenko are the leaders in turnover, they managed to ship over 1 million tons.

With the increased production we will have more workplaces in our section. By 2023, the number of employees should increase from current 800 to 1148.

— Let us talk of ecology. The new station of water purification on the pit started working in July 2017. Why do you need this production cycle?

— No matter how pretentious it may sound, but the Solntsevsky coal mine strives to keep up with the times and invest not only in production capacity, but also in the environmental protection. Two years ago we decided to design and construct a water purification plant on the territory of the coal mine. It was initiated by Oleg Misevra, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the EMCO.
The principle of water purification at the station is multistage. In short, the water from the pit is collected in a storage tank, then it is pumped to a station located 40 m higher by means of pumps. There it is filtered in several ways, and after all the purification steps it enters the Tarasovka river flowing nearby into the Uglegorka river. The water meets the fishing quality standards, so it does not harm the local flora and fauna.

The cost of this unique equipment is 77 million rubles. The station cleans 100 cubic meters of water per hour. But what is more important - it fully meets the needs of the pit and reduces to zero the detrimental impact of industrial production on the watercourses feeding the Uglegorka river.
The station is automated. Every 40 minutes it is self-cleaned independently, without outside interference. All dirt from its filters comes back to the storage tank of dirty water. The uninterrupted work is provided by a separate substation. Therefore, the equipment is not at threat of possible power outages: the water from the cleaning system will simply flow back into the storage. And when the power supply resumes, the station will work again.

It is very important that the treatment plant is mobile. Over time, when the work moves to another section of the pit, the water station will be easily transported to a new location - and it will continue its work there.

- This year the opencast coal mine turns 30. Can you sum up some intermediate results?

- The main result, perhaps, is that today Solntsevskiy coal mine is a stable operating company. We managed to survive a lot, including the years of crisis. I honestly want to believe that all this has remained in the past forever.

30 years is a serious age for both a man and a company. Our production was gradually expanded, the volume of extraction increased. It is worth mentioning that during this time they have grown 8 times - from 170 thousand tons in the 80-s to almost 4 million tons, which we extracted in 2016.

Next year we plan to put into operation the second stage, which will give us the maximum increase in production volumes in the future. By 2021, we plan to reach 10 million tons of coal production per year.

Well, on the eve of the Miner’s day - a holiday in honor of one of the most difficult and severe professions - first of all I wish my colleagues great health, stability and growth of business performance. After all, our future and the future of our families depend on all of this. Congratulations!