19 February, 2015
Mark Kirkbride, CEO of West Cumbria Mining Ltd, outlines the company’s plans which are focused on the development of a new underground coking coal mine near Whitehaven, Cumbria, UK
The Cumbrian coalfields have a long history of providing the vital ingredients for the steel making industry. The area was also once a major producer of steel, in particular railway rails, and the Bessemer process of steelmaking was pioneered in Workington, close to Whitehaven (see location map).
As the Cumbrian coalfield is so well understood and regarded, when the opportunity arose to acquire on-shore and off-shore licences, covering an area of approximately 200km2, West Cumbria Mining Ltd (WCM) recognised the potential to develop a substantial new offshore underground metallurgical coal mine. Whilst, the UK has an extensive mining heritage there are currently only a few active deep coal mines, with no coking coal mines operational at all in the UK. All coking coal is currently imported from predominantly Australia and the USA.
This is why the news of investigations into an underground mining operation at Whitehaven in Cumbria has been very well received by the investment community, steel producers and those in the local community. In fact, WCM has completed £14.7m in private equity financing with EMR Capital Resources Fund to support the next stages of development, including onshore and offshore borehole drilling campaigns, production of a JORC resource and completion of a Preliminary Feasibility Study in 2015.
The Whitehaven Coking Coal Project is located adjacent to and contiguous with the former Haig Colliery, from which 48 million tonnes of coal was extracted from 1914 to 1986, when it closed as part of the coal industry decline in the UK, despite extensive remaining resources.
Within the three WCM licence areas it is conservatively estimated that there is around one billion tonnes of metallurgical coal. Currently WCM has scoped a mine extracting two million tonnes of hard to semi-soft metallurgical coal a year.
The licences are south of the former Haig Colliery workings and, as a result of this proximity, there is a large database of existing information which informs the project on various aspects of the project, including both the regional and specific structural geology in the area, together with extensive mapping, mine plans, mine coal sampling, borehole drilling and geophysical surveys. For example, there are 30 historical on-shore coal industry boreholes, 18 of which are fully cored, enabling WCM to review the historical logs proving the presence of key seams and geological sequencing and inputting into the JORC reporting.
In Autumn 2014, WCM started its own borehole drilling programme with four onshore sites being investigated and samples extracted for up-to-date coal quality assessment, confirmation of target seam intersections and input into a maiden JORC resource.
A further campaign of drilling in 2015 will see both onshore and offshore drilling commencing in spring 2015.
The onshore geology is known to be structurally disturbed due to faulting which has been mapped and surveyed historically; there is also clear evidence to demonstrate that the offshore structural geology is more benign with significantly less faulting, as observed at Haig and other Cumbrian collieries. Offshore 3D geophysical surveys which WCM has inherited, especially for the southern licence block, clearly show this trend.
The expectation is that the mine will be targeting three key seams in the Carboniferous formations;
Bannock Band – seam thickness varies between 2 to 3m across the project (averaging 2.5m), occurring at depths around 400m at the coastline.
Main Band – seam thickness varies between 2 to 3m across the project (averaging 2.5m), with intervening vertical separation of around 30m.
Sixquarters – seam thickness of up to 2.5m with intervening vertical separation of 50m to 80m.
Historical mapping of coal quality data and trends indicate that the coal rank increases in a south westerly progression; this infers that the proposed new mine would be extracting prime hard coking coal from the southern offshore licence area, with drilling targeted to demonstrate this up-ranking trend.
The project location has a series of compelling attributes for a new mine, not least of which is the exceptional existing infrastructure nearby. The North West coastal railway line passes through the onshore licence block and connects to the nearby Port of Workington and onwards via the UK rail network to the UK’s three main steelworks. The railway line also connects to a number of other potential ports for export to the overseas markets of Europe or Asia. There is ready power available, an available workforce of both skilled and semi-skilled labour and existing manufacturing and service providers in the local area.
The landscape of West Cumbria is attractive and combines industrial heritage with a unique coastal environment. Within this setting there are areas of lower quality arable land which could be utilised for the mine site to minimise impact. Whitehaven and the surrounding area sits outside the Lake District National Park, but nonetheless the environmental impact of the mine is a very significant consideration for WCM, with full environmental impact assessments being undertaken as part of the pre-feasibility study work programme.
WCM aims to ensure that a modern, state-of-the-art mine will have very little environmental impact and will be in stark contrast with the local mining operations of the last century.
One of the company’s objectives is to capture and utilise the wealth of knowledge that exists in the area, which has witnessed mining activities from 1256. Emphasis and investment has being focussed on ensuring that the local community have been involved from the outset, with community events and an open & honest communication policy being central to the ongoing support the project receives.
The next twelve months are critical for the project in terms of the feasibility study, coal quality testing and JORC resource definition, but the Whitehaven Coking Coal Project has all of the core attributes in place that are needed. The development of this new mine would appear to fit well in terms of ongoing UK & EU steel consumption, global structural supply issues of hard coking coals and a recovery in coal prices in the medium term.
Drilling works underway in St Bees
Project location and licence areas