German mining technology aims to make Colombian mines safer

125px_tn241245022219.jpgGerman technology and German knowhow are to help the Colombian coalmining sector, underground mining in particular, to become safer and increase its production. A strategic co-operation is planned that is to comprise not only a safety partnership but also technology transfer. Juan Gabriel Ceballos Campuzano is the owner of Colombia’s old-established family mining firm Soc Central de Activos Mineros, based in the Colombian capital of Bogotá. Aiding the development of heavy industry in the country on behalf of the government Ceballos’ grandfather laid the foundation stone for the firm over half a century ago. Today about 350 people are employed at Ceballos’ mine. Last year he produced 150,000 t of high-grade coking coal and the figure is set to rise considerably in the near future.

In about four years, he says, “we want to increase production tenfold to 1.5 Mt”. The Colombian wants to generate the necessary capital for this – a not inconsiderable EUR10 million – on the US stock exchange. He wishes to buy new machines – for which an initial sum of some EUR7 million has been budgeted – primarily from Germany. Although the machinery does cost “about 50% more there” seen in the medium and long term this is still a “good move”.

Ceballos was part of a 27-man delegation of Colombian mine operators and mining experts recently visiting Germany on a week’s tour of the Saarland, a region with a long mining tradition. The program included visits to suppliers, an underground colliery tour and a seminar on mining safety. In 2010 alone official statistics list the number of deaths resulting from mining accidents in the Andean nation as 173. In the last three years the figure was over 400 while the number of unreported cases is likely to be considerably higher. Some 80,000 people in total are employed in coal mining and about 35,000 of these in open-pit mining.

Commenting on standards Manfred Schmidt from the German Engineering Federation (Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Anlagenbau – VDMA) in charge of visit co-ordination said a large proportion of underground coal mining in Colombia is “at the stage of coal mining in Germany 50 to 100 years ago”. Schmidt is planning a project supported amongst others by the German-Colombian Chamber of Commerce which is aimed at remedying as quickly as possible the still frequent serious shortcomings prevalent in the mining sector especially underground. The aim here is to build up a strategic co-operation that will include both a safety partnership as well as technology and knowledge transfer. Ceballos says the Colombians are particularly interested in special solutions due to the often difficult extraction conditions faced there.

Of the 79 Mt of coal produced by the South American country last year some 70 Mt were extracted at open-pit mines. The remaining 9 Mt were mined underground by about 4,000 mainly small or micro mining operations. With a few exceptions these operators scarcely attain annual production of more than 10,000 t each. Furthermore, half of them are operating illegally. These mines have neither mining authorisations nor any other necessary permits and documents. “Only about 5% of these mines” says Ceballos, “are properly equipped”. His country, he said, could learn a lot from the Germans, adding that the nation is now in the process of restructuring mining controls. Major changes are already pending over the coming months, he said. The new rules are to be far stricter than those of the past. Ceballos is convinced “the sector will continue to consolidate.” Small operations will have to merge with larger ones to deal with the stricter regulations in financial terms. Here, too, help from abroad is welcome. This, he said, would not only improve mining safety but also environmental protection. There is still “a lot to do” in both these fields.

Colombia boasts one of the best grades of coking coal in the world. At present some 5 Mt are produced annually, largely for export. This makes the country the world’s fourth largest exporter of coking coal. Existing resources are estimated at some 2,000 Mt. Ceballos says over the next ten to 15 years they want to increase exports to an annual 20 to 30 Mt. This is double the amount currently produced in Germany. Costs for this stand in the high double-digit millions. Ceballos says: “To produce a million more tons of coking coal we need additional investment of $ 3-4 million.” If the cooperation with Germany runs to plan not an inconsiderable proportion of this money will flow into the coffers of German mining suppliers.