There’s no denying the centerpiece of Usibelli Coal Mine: A 1300W Bucyrus-Erie walking dragline named “Ace-in-the-Hole” has been there since 1977 and is the largest land-mobile machine in Alaska, weighing over 2,250 tons (2,041 tonnes). But a little over a year ago, a bright orange EX1900-6 arrived at the mine and has been making its own impact.
Headquartered near Healy, Alaska, Usibelli Coal Mine (UCM) is the only operational coal mine in the state. It’s a family-owned business started in 1943 by Emil Usibelli. His son, Joe, served as president of the company beginning in 1964 and is now chairman of the Board of Directors. The company is currently run by third-generation family member Joe Jr., who has been president of the company since 1987.
The 35,100-acre mine produces about 1.5 million tons (1.36 million tonnes) of coal annually, most of which is used for regional power. Coal is transported by the Alaska Railroad to five electrical power plants, including two military sites: Fort Wainwright (U.S. Army); Eielson Air Force Base; Golden Valley Electric Association (Unit #1 and Unit #2), Fairbanks’ electric cooperative; Aurora Energy, a wholesale supplier of electricity and provider of district heat in Fairbanks; and the University of Alaska Fairbanks power plant. UCM also exports coal out of Seward to the Pacific Rim markets.
UCM has an interesting location at the edge of Denali National Park; however, it’s been a good fit. The Usibelli family has always been environmentally conscious and began reclaiming land before federal laws for reclamation were in effect.
“Reclamation is a big part of our operations, and we focus on restoring the land to its natural state,” said Alan Renshaw, vice president of operations and general manager at UCM. “We take top soil and place it where we’ve mined, then we seed it out and plant trees in clusters so they have a greater chance of survival. We’ve reclaimed more than 5,500 acres.”
The ultimate machine delivery
How the EX1900-6 arrived at the mine is a story in itself. A team of Joe Usibelli, Jr.; Alan Renshaw; Fred Wallis, vice president of engineering; and Billy Graham, maintenance manager; began looking to add equipment to the mine’s fleet. The group collaborated with Hitachi dealer Construction Machinery Industrial (CMI) and located an available machine in Nome, Alaska.
“We had been looking for a larger machine, heard about the 1900 in Nome and saw it as an opportunity,” Renshaw said.
First, the team needed to make sure it was a viable option; the machine had been idle for more than a year.
“It was February, and I had just gotten back from a vacation to Mexico, then jumped on another plane up to Nome to check out the machine,” Wallis laughed. “We were impressed that we got it to start!”
The EX1900-6 had about 5,000 hours, and the team got some more good news when they discovered most of those hours were idle time. It only had about 700 hours of actual operation – virtually new.
The team boldly coordinated the logistics of machine delivery, which included getting a permit to walk the EX1900-6 to the Port of Nome, walking the machine on a barge, transporting it by barge to Seward, disassembling the machine in Seward, transporting it by 11 trucks to UCM’s site, then re-assembling it in just three days at UCM by a crew of four technicians. The excavator began operating at the mine in August 2015.
“There are a lot of things that could have gone wrong with the transport, but we got it here successfully!” Renshaw said.
Cheaper, faster, better
A few machine adjustments were made to the EX1900-6, UCM's first Hitachi excavator, before it was ready for action.
“We added a fire system and winterization package,” Renshaw said. “The bucket had flat teeth and that has a hard time getting into coal. So we switched to a heavy duty bucket with pointed teeth.”
UCM primarily mines three seams of sub-bituminous coal ranging from 18 ft. to 30 ft. (5.5 m-9 m) in depth with the interburden extending from 70 ft. to 125 ft. (21 m -38 m), so a backhoe configuration proved best for the mine.
“Backhoe loading with the 1900 is faster, and it’s definitely got breakout power,” Wallis said.
So far, things have been pretty quiet with the EX1900-6 as it loads a rotation of 150-ton trucks.
“It’s well laid out,” Graham said. “Our mechanics appreciate the simple engineering and components on the machine. We have very few calls on the radio about it.”
While conditions can be brutal in Alaska, UCM is used to the challenges and is now equipped with the reliable EX1900-6 to keep production moving forward.
“The 1900 is a similar size machine to what we had been using, but it’s faster and cheaper to run,” Renshaw said. “The colder and darker it gets, the higher the coal orders and the harder we work – and the harder the Hitachi works. It can get to 40 below, and we keep running.”
Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. is serviced by Construction Machinery Industrial LLC, Fairbanks, Alaska.