Cleveland Potash, the world’s first commercial producers of the rare evaporate mineral, polyhalite, is currently undergoing a £250 million investment in a revamping its facilities, which has created new jobs.
The 80-acre Boulby mine, in North Yorkshire, England, is currently two year’s into a five-year project which will include the upgrade of existing underground machinery fleet such as larger continuous miners, drills, bolters, conveyors and shuttle cars.
A proportion of the investment will go towards strengthening mine infrastructure to support the polyhalite extraction. It is reopening old roadways and widening out existing roadways as well as commissioning, building and augmentation of underground bunkers.
The firm, which is a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals (ICL), has undertook numerous improvement works at the surface too; everything from the £16m rock shaft head tower renewal to improve hoisting and capacity potential to 5.3 million tonnes, to logistical improvements at its Tees Port facility. Significant investment is also planned to improve the efficiency of the surface potash process plant.
Phil Baines, Managing Director and General Manager of Cleveland Potash, said: “We are very much improving all facets of the company and the site. Part of our plan was to specifically increase the workforce underground.
“This facilitates four potash mining teams to work at any one time and independently deploy salt mining crews to push out the strategic roadways.
“We’ve actually completed that employment programme now and it has grown the workforce by about 120 over the past 18 months, bringing our underground workforce to more than700, with nearly 1,200 employees in total.”
A significant development of Cleveland Potash is the polyhalite seam, which sits beneath the potash. The North York Moors coastline is home to a previously unheard amount of polyhalite deposit, and is something which makes the organisation unique. It is the only one in the entire world mining the rare material used as a speciality fertilizers.
Part of the five-year plan is to ramp up the annual polyhalite production tonnage to 600,000 by 2017.
Borehole information on the mine dates as far back as the 1930’s. Planning permission was granted in a joint venture between Chartered Consolidated and ICI Chemicals which started shaft sinking in 1969.
The first potash were hoisted in 1973, full-production came about in 1975 but it was not until recently that polyhalite started to be extracted commercially.
Baines said: “We put two drifts down from the current salt horizon within the mine, in the central area, about three years ago now.
“There’s millions of tonnes of it and at this stage, its looks relatively stable and strong, and we have proved you can machine cut it and support the infrastructure very well.
“The compressive strength can be up to 150mpa compared 30mpa for the potash so it is significantly stronger but we have been working on it for two years now, and the mine has stood as firm as an office.
“We also have a third mineral called carnallite so we have multiple options that take different processes which gives us much more flexibility with our business plan.”
The potassium chloride chemical, known as muriate of potash (MoP), is a product that typically contains 60 percent potash and is the most widely used form. This fertiliser aids in the formulation of vegetative matter and root production so international markets are quite comfortable as a result as this.
Polyhalite on the other hand, is a more complex equation as there is no previous market or trading values to go by.
Baines said: “With any emerging new product you have to prove that this new product is just as effective, safe and is generally okay compared to more established brands.
“So it’s just the same with this polyhalite, we have the potential to mine it and up the tonnage and slowly we have got to develop the market.
“It’s not going to be straightforward and it is a different product as although it is a fertiliser, polyhalite has got different constituents and has different uses so it is going to be steady and a waiting game.
“Over the last seven to 10 years, we have done agronomic trials with the polyhalite and it’s fair to say that every single pot test and trial it has not shown any detriment to any crop.”
Polyhalite contains magnesium and calcium sulphate too and lighter, lumpier soil is where it has optimum effectiveness. It has excellent potential as an organic fertiliser, as well as a sulphate, which could work to Cleveland Potash’s benefit as UK and European soil tends to be sulphur deficient.
The firm’s main product is 2-4mm granular potash made from a compaction process, and fertilizers are very much the core product. It can also mine anything between 500,000 and one million tonnes of rock salt, helping to de-ice UK and US roads in winter time.
New technology and equipment such as the flexible conveyor train, which helps to mine a much greater tonnage, enables Cleveland Potash to achieve improved efficiency.
The underground diesel fleet is 150 vehicles strong and there is an onsite diesel vehicle workshop. Once it goes underground, nothing comes to the surface for services.
In co-ordination with parent company ICL, Cleveland Potash has garnered major international clients such as GrowHow, Yara International and Roullier Groupe and sells to clients as far away as Brazil. It does not ordinarily sell to Asia because its sister mine Iber Potash does this.
When Baines joined the organisation a decade ago it was on the back of the closure of the Selby coalfield and he soon capitilised on the skillset readily available.
He said: “Some were doing schooling on their own and doing degrees in engineering. It was evident to me there were people who had been here 30 years who were really good, practical guys.
“I really set about trying to formalise this. I’m now President of the Midland Institute of Mining Engineers and through this, I promote best practice and strive to develop people.
“Through the Institute and HM Inspectorate of Mines, we looked at competence and leadership in particular.
In the past five years staff have been sponsored to go to Cambourne School of Mines to do Msc in Mining Engineering, and various staff such as geologists, surveyors, mechanical and electrical engineers have been supported to broaden their knowledge by undertaking postgraduate study.
Every workman has the NEBOSH working safely qualification and has a minimum two training days a year, and the avenue to go from workman to supervisor and middle-management all the way up to the upper echelons of Cleveland Potash is quite fluid.
Most people live within a 20 mile radius and many businesses on its vendors list are firms from within Cleveland. It donates funds to local football, rugby and cricket clubs, as well as the RNLI and Air Ambulance charities’ illustrating how ingrained Cleveland Potash is in the local community.
Every company has its business and operational challenges and for Cleveland Potash it is going to be its cost per tonne, as it is a big mine with extensive facilities and expensive running costs.
World commodity, global prices affects it too of course but Baines has faith in its business plan.
He added: “A massive strategic advantage from a logistics sense is being just 30 kilometres away from the deep-water Port in Middlesbrough, as it can load anything from 1,100 tonne to 65,000 tonne Panamax vessels at Tees dock. It makes us accessible to a wide range of clients.
“Going forward Cleveland Potash will be developing the market for polyhalite, maintaining the level of potash production and looking into carnallite more. Further exploration and maintaining its reserve base is of paramount importance.”