Four years after being placed on care and maintenance, the relocation of Exxaro’s Matla 1 coal mine is finally underway.

Project and technology executive head JOHAN MEYER explains to GERARD PETER the need for the relocation as well as what the project means for Eskom’s constrained power grid.

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Located in Mpumalanga, the Matla project has been in existence for 42 years and comprises three mines that provide coal via conveyor belt to the Matla Power Station.

Together, they contribute to 9% of Eskom’s baseload electricity. Matla 1 has been on care and maintenance since 2016.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 11, 2020
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Funded by Eskom, the primary objective of the R3.3 billion relocation project is to provide safe access to the remaining coal reserves and to improve efficiency after the original Mine 1 entrance was closed due to safety concerns.

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“The coal resource is spread amongst a very vast property below the power station. Five years ago, the three mines had access to different parts of the coal resource and jointly fed the power station with about 10 million tons of coal,” starts Meyer.

“After 42 years, Matla 1’s shaft is too far away from a safety point of view. It took nearly half a shift just to get the workers to the mining face. So, the purpose of the relocation is primarily a safety one and also ensuring that we can get workers and equipment closer to the mining phase to do the work.”

When the Board made the decision to stop mining Matla 1, it meant that it could only supply about 6 Mtpa of coal to the power station via Mines 2 and 3.

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“As a result, the additional coal required has to be trucked in from alternative sources and it is destroying roads, consuming diesel and causing a lot of other challenges from a social and economic point of view.

“Once Mine 1 is back in commission, it will produce about 4 Mtpa and we will be able to supply the 10 Mtpa to the power station,” explains Meyer.

An integrated mine

The project entails the construction of new surface infrastructure, including pollution control dams, offices, overland conveyors, and crushing and screening equipment.

The project entails the construction of a decline shaft to access the current reserves underground and with that Meyer explains that a set of continuous miners and equipment and supporting infrastructure is required to do actually the mining work.

“The previous equipment is being utilised in Mines 2 and 3, so it’s time we have new equipment,” he adds.

In addition, Exxaro will also sink a ventilation shaft in order to provide fresh air for workers. Lastly, the mine will be connected to the other two mines so that coal from these mines can also be moved.

“The project is driven by these key inputs and once Matla 1 is ready, it will create an integrated unit that can supply 10 Mtpa of coal again,” explains Meyer.

Meyer adds that Exxaro is keenly focused on implementing the latest digital technology to ensure that it can mine in the most cost-effective manner.

“In every project that we implement, we do so with the intention of using the best technology to improve input and lower cost. It will be the same for Matla 1; we will implement the best equipment we can.”

However, the type of equipment to be used is reliant on Eskom fulfilling its funding commitments for the project. Meyer states that Exxaro is yet to receive the full amount of R3.3 billion from the power utility.

“We are still awaiting further funds to be released by Eskomfor the projects. It is a challenge regarding capital but we will put in the framework to ensure that we get to the coal but we also acknowledge that we don’t have enough capital to put in all the bells and whistles to have a fully connected model like we’ve done at our Belfast mine but we will ensure that we get the job done,” he states.

Given the fact that coal is now being seen as the pariah of the mining industry, is it a good decision to relocate the mine? Meyer believes it is the correct decision in order to drive South Africa’s economic growth.

“At this point in time, we need energy in the country to grow. And currently we are still dependent on our coal resources to drive this.

“Yes, Exxaro is expanding its renewal initiatives such as building wind farms but that is not enough on the short term. Without energy we cannot grow the country;. So, we are in that unfortunate situation that we still need to feed the energy grid with coal.”

What’s more, the relocation has enormous socio-economic benefits for the surrounding communities. There are 2 000 people and 2 500 contractors that work full-time on the three mines.

In addition to providing employment, the mine also benefits both formal and informal businesses in the area. Furthermore, as the project progresses, Exxaro is committed to ensuring that it employs local contractors and manpower to undertake the operation.

Exxaro realised the need to need to relocate Matla 1 as far back as 2009 but faced challenges with regards to Eskom funding the project. However, now Meyer is optimistic that the project will now gain momentum.

The company expects the mine to be operational by 2023, producing 4 Mtpa which will feed directly to the Matla Power Station via an underground conveyor belt. It will also extend Matla ife of mine to 2042.

“So I am very positive about the current governance and decision-making around the project and we will be able to ensure that the mine is in production by 2023,” he concludes.